Vietnam Trip Day 14 – Halong Bay Day Tour

image

Hanoi is a travel agent maze! There are numerous companies offering a multitude of tours making it extremely difficult to choose amongst them. Tours starting in Hanoi are a lot more expensive than those in Saigon. A half day walking tour through the city can easily cost you up to 300,000 dong (approx. £10) per person which by Vietnamese standards is a lot of money. To save some money and to spend some more time in Hanoi itself we decided to dedicate only one day to a day trip to get us out of the city.

Having read really bad reviews about the day trip to the Perfume Pagoda we eventually agreed on going to Halong Bay. The majority of people book overnight trips but neither of us really fancied spending too much time on a boat especially since we had the gorgeous hotel suite overlooking the cathedral and so much more street food to discover. We booked the day trip through our hotel (operated by Khanh Sinh Tour) which was completely hassle free. The trip cost us around 700,000 dong (just over £20) each and included the minibus, water, lunch, kayaking and fresh fruit. We saw places that offer similar tours for around £15. However, be warned that you always get what you pay for in the end. There are tons of horror stories online about low safety standards on boats as well as serious problems with food hygiene and resulting food poisoning. Luckily, our £20 got us a safe boat and a perfectly edible lunch consisting of prawns, chicken, veg, a crab soup (that had no crab in it), rice, spring rolls and some chips. Whilst the food wasn’t overwhelmingly amazing it was still a decent enough lunch that didn’t give us any digestive problems afterwards.

Our tour guide picked us up bang on time at 8am just after we had finished breakfast. Because our tour was priced slightly higher than others we were guaranteed that the group number wouldn’t exceed 20 people and that the kayaking would be included in the price. This is often charged as an extra on top so make sure you ask at the time of booking. We were pleasantly surprised when we found out that there was only going to be 12 people taking the same tour as us meaning we got out of Hanoi relatively quickly as there were only three pick up points. By 9 am we had left the city behind us and were on the motorway to Halong City.

The journey isn’t the most scenic one but still interesting enough to some extent as you drive past large factories, stone pits and rice fields. If you decide to go to Halong Bay on a day tour you need to be prepared to spend at least 3.5 hours each way on a bus. You usually get a 20 minute stop to stretch your legs and use the “happy room”. Most tours stop at this big souvenir shop halfway to the bay selling huge stone statues, lacquer ware, paintings, etc. All stock is massively overpriced and can be bought much cheaper in Hanoi itself (after some haggling of course).

We reached the bay at around 11.30 am and got on a boat pretty much straight away. First impressions: gorgeous scenery, lime stone islets as far as the eye can see, but oh so many boats. We were told that there are around 1,000 day tour boats and an additional 400 extended journey boats that accommodate overnight stays. All of these boats are petrol fuelled which is surprising considering the bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result of the heavy boat traffic the water around the harbour is heavily polluted so just keep looking at the horizon and the lovely lime stone formations to distract yourself from the filthy sea. Tourism is a real danger to the bay so I am sure sooner or later there will be some restrictions implemented on how the islets can be accessed in order to preserve the area.

Straight after lunch we went kayaking around a few caves and a floating village for about 45 minutes. You don’t get the opportunity to swim because of pollution but the kayaking was good enough for us. Unfortunately, we weren’t warned that we’d get soaking wet. The paddles don’t have any kind of rim to stop the water from splashing all over you and into the boat. Make sure you put on your swimming trunks before you start paddling around the caves. It took ages for our clothes to dry afterwards and was slightly uncomfortable especially because you can’t be outside or on the top deck when the boat manoeuvres away from the floating village.

Next on the itinerary was a guided tour of Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Palace Cave). The cave can be reached via a short relatively steep climb up a few stairs. The climb is easy compared to Paradise Cave in Phong Nha although some people seemed to struggle with the stairs here as well. Because we had been to the overwhelmingly magnificent caves close to Dong Hoi just a few days previously we were a bit underwhelmed by Thien Cung. It’s a nice cave but nothing compared to the beauty of the caves in the national park. If you don’t have the time to visit Phong Nha then Thien Cung will definitely suffice and create some good memories for you. Unfortunately, the cave was extremely damp and humid when we visited towards the end of May and didn’t feel as refreshingly cool as the ones we had previously been to. Some people have complained about being rushed through it by the masses of tourists flocking in at a steady pace but we didn’t experience that at all and had enough time to look at the different rock formations and shapes (dragons, turtles, crocodiles and a loving couple) as pointed out by our guide.

All in all we spent around 4 hours on the boat which honestly was enough time for us to take in the wonders and beauty of the bay. If you’re looking for a romantic overnight trip with your significant other then a 2 day cruise probably is the perfect choice for you for a special occasion. It’s not for us though, so no regrets!

We were back in Hanoi by around 8pm, had some Banh Goi for dinner and a few beers on the balcony. We also had a look at a few shops online we wanted to visit the next day for souvenirs and silk but decided to just have a roam about the Old Quarter in the end.

Vietnam Trip Day 13 – Visiting Uncle Ho

image

The Vietnamese have developed a huge cult around their number 1 national hero who they affectionately call Uncle Ho. They show the utmost respect, loyalty and gratitude for him and his efforts for the country. All large cities have a museum dedicated to him but it is Hanoi that attracts the majority of visitors from all over Vietnam and the rest of the world. Why? Because the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved and displayed in the mausoleum here. For the Vietnamese it’s almost like a pilgrimage, for us it is fitting all pieces of the nation’s more recent history together.

We took a taxi from the hotel to the mausoleum which is west of the Old Quarter. The taxi ride only cost 50, 000 dong which is a good investment if you don’t fancy walking 30 to 40 minutes in the heat. Luckily there were no queues that morning so we got into the mausoleum quite quickly. We had to hand over our supply of water and our camera. The camera was returned to us straight after we exited the mausoleum. Any other possessions are returned at the main exit. Make sure you wear long trousers or skirts/dresses that cover your knees and a shoulder covering top as otherwise you won’t be allowed in.

Access is granted to a smallish number of people at intervals so we had to wait around 10 minutes for a crowd to build up. You are then accompanied to the mausoleum which is guarded by stern military in crisp white uniforms. Once you enter the mausoleum which is a massive block of concrete in typical communist style refrain from talking and laughing. Don’t put your hands in your pockets and take off your hat. As expected the mausoleum is refreshingly cold. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is preserved in a big glass sarcophagus. It’s a really bizarre experience seeing the pale and almost wax figure-like body of Uncle Ho who died 44 years ago. There’s a walkway around it so you can see him from all angles. You’re not allowed to stop and the queue moves at a steady pace. At the time of our visit we were the only non-Vietnamese visitors and it was great to observe people’s reaction upon seeing the man that has liberated the country from colonialism. In total you will spend no more than 5 minutes in the mausoleum. Entrance to the mausoleum is free.

Within the same complex you’ll find the Presidential Palace (an impressively restored colonial house; not open to the public and only used for official official receptions), the Stilt House (preserved as Ho left it), a collection of cars he used during his life and the Botanical Gardens. Entrance for Vietnamese is free but foreigners pay 25, 000 dong to get in. The setting is beautiful and even though there isn’t much to do and see it should be on your list of places to see when in Hanoi.

Next we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Again it’s within the same complex and will cost you another 25, 000 dong. To be honest you could give this a miss and spend your dong on some bia hoi instead. The exhibits are poorly labelled and nothing really makes sense as the photos and their significance isn’t explained.  There are a lot of Vietnamese newspaper articles that have neither been translated nor paraphrased. The second floor hosts a large statue of Ho and a surreal exhibition reminiscent of badly executed modern art that poorly attempts to interpret Vietnam and its nation’s history. Maybe if you’re Vietnamese it all makes sense although the locals themselves seemed to be more eager to find the next great photo opportunity than trying to understand the weird displays. It took us a whole 20 minutes to complete the set path around the museum without having learned a thing about the great Ho. Quite disappointing really!

After we collected our now boiling water we walked to the Temple of Literature south of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. The entrance fee is 20, 000 dong. The temple was founded in 1070 and is a rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.  Vietnam’s first university was set up here. Many of Hanoi’s secondary school graduates come here to have their graduation pictures taken. On the day we visited there must have been at least 100 within the relatively small temple area – the girls in traditional dresses and the boys in their best suits. Funnily enough, wedding photography isn’t allowed on the grounds. It’s a lovely picturesque place but our experience was spoilt by the heat and the masses of tourist and school excursion groups.

After a really delicious lunch at Minh Thay’s Family Restaurant on 20 Ngo Huyen (the chef in this little restaurant was a contestant on Master Chef Vietnam and made it to the top 7) we went to the History Museum and Revolution Museum which have recently been combined and operate as one museum with two locations within very close proximity. The combined entrance fee is 40, 000 dong for adults. The Revolution Museum, where we started our museum tour, consists of a collection of photographs and random exhibits such as spoons and bowls said to be used by famous Vietnamese revolutionaries during the resistance against the French and the American War. Again it’s a museum for Vietnamese that have a solid knowledge of tne nation’s fight for independence and reunification. Little is explained with regard to the overall context of the exhibits and their importance which makes it difficult to understand the whole picture. It almost feels as if the museum fails to educate which ideally should be its main purpose.
The National Museum of Vietnamese History is diagonally across the road. It’s poorly signed so we had to ask for directions. This part of the combined museum is your typical national history museum that exhibits pottery, jewellery, weaponry and other artefacts from a wide range of eras. It’s the kind of museum you’re dragged to on school trips and always dreaded the experience. As an adult you attempt to appreciate the significance of the exhibits a lot more but if you’re like us the visit won’t take you much longer than half an hour. I promise we tried to enjoy it and some stuff is really interesting but in the end I was more interested in the old furniture on display (and imagining how they could fit into our flat) than the numerous stone carvings.

As a little treat and out of curiosity we then walked through the French quarter to Cong Caphe on 152 Trieu Viet Vuong. It wasn’t until a day later that we realised this coffee shop is now a chain with locations all over the city and that we didn’t have to walk for half an hour to get there. Anyway, it was worth the journey. The cafe is decorated with kitsch Soviet memorabilia but surprisingly cosy and kind of retro-cool/chic. It attracts a younger ultra fashionable crowd tapping away on laptops and the latest smartphones. The coffee is super delicious. My SO doesn’t drink coffee at all but he thoroughly enjoyed his caphe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) and I loved my coconut sorbet coffee which easily is the best coffee I have ever had. Beat that Starbucks! I really hope that this chain soon comes to the UK although there is no doubt that I will be easily paying a fiver for the same coffee that cost me £1.

Dinner that evening was the worst dinner we had during our whole holiday. We had to wait around 45 minutes for it to be served and then it was cold. Clear case of it not being cooked on the premises. We hardly ate any of it and needless to say didn’t leave any tips that night as the service was pretty crap overall as well. The place is called Bun Bo Nam Bo – Bun Cha and is located on 39C Ly Quoc Su.

Vietnam Trip Day 12 – Hanoi Walking Tour and Hoa Lo Prison Museum

image

For one more day we relied on the Lonely Planet as our tour guide. We followed the set path through the Old Quarter which took around 4 hours but this includes the time spent in Ngoc Son Temple, the Memorial House, Dong Xuan Market and some shopping. Yes, we finally bought some souvenirs for friends and family and three old propaganda posters for our new flat. The three small (A4) prints cost us a total of 170, 000 dong. Some of you hardcore hagglers will surely get a better price but it doesn’t hurt us to pay £5 on a new wall feature. We started looking for silk and cashmere scarves as well but couldn’t find a decent price yet.

The walking tour starts off at Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) which is located at the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake and can be accessed via the red Huc (Rising Sun) Bridge. The temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, La To who is the patron saint of physicians and the scholar Van Xuong. Inside you’ll find a rather large stuffed lake turtle, fine ceramics and altars. It’s a pretty little temple but it shouldn’t take you any more than 30 minutes to go through it and snap a few images of the lake and bridge.

Next we walked past the Martyr’s Monument and the Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnamese art form which is said to be fun to watch. Puppets are operated by skilled puppeteers who have to complete a three year training programme before they can appear on stage (behind a bamboo screen). The shows usually tell stories and legends and are accompanied by a live orchestra. Our friends had already been to the show and showed us a few videos. They enjoyed the first 15 minutes but it then gets very repetitive so we decided to give this “tourist trap” a miss.

Walking past numerous shoe shops some of which sell rejected seconds by well-known designer brands (I will definitely have a closer look at these on our last day in Hanoi) we reached our second point of interest, the Memorial House. This is a restored traditional merchant’s house that is worthwhile seeing if you’re around in the Old Quarter. Entrance is 10, 000 dong. For that you get to see a number of rooms spread over two floors around two beautiful courtyards. Some of the original furniture has been retained such as a gorgeous wooden cabinet, chess games and a wooden bed which isn’t as uncomfortable as it looks (mattresses are a modern luxury). There are also some crafts for sale but you’d be better off buying them at the market as the prices charged here are a lot higher.

Bach Ma Temple was closed when we got there so we just walked past it to the Old East Gate. Nothing exciting to report on this. Quick picture and off we went towards Dong Xuan Market. This is the largest market in Hanoi but surprisingly untouristy. They sell everything from crockery, to clothing and footwear, food, jewellery, fabrics and some silk and pashmina scarves. If you know how to sew you best head upstairs to the cloth market to buy the materials to make your own clothes. Alternatively, pick up your favourite design and take it to a local tailor who can then do his/her magic.

The majority of the retailers’ level of English is close to non-existent. Paper and pen or a calculator are necessary to negotiate a price. Be careful when looking at souvenir stands of which there are only a few. Some of the stall owners must think all Westeners are proper daft and will try and trick you into buying whatever they have for sale. I was looking at a wool scarf and this guy says “real silk”. I am pretty confident that I know the difference between wool and silk so just said “yeah, right” and walked away as I couldn’t be bothered arguing or haggling at this point. I will be back on our last day though which we have dedicated to be shopping day before we head down to Phu Quoc.

The Old Quarter really is one big outdoor shopping paradise. Most of the street names translate to the product that is sold on this particular street,  ie Hang Gai is full of silk stores whilst Hang Da should in theory be full of leather selling merchants. Make sure you don’t just focus on what’s on sale but do look above shop level and you will see some stunning old architecture amongst the modern chaos of houses.

We finished our walking tour at around 2pm, just in time for some Banh Ghoi which we really enjoyed again.

In the afternoon we just spent some time in the hotel deciding and researching what to do in the evening before we headed to the Hoa Lo Prison on 1 Hoa Lo. The prison is just a five minute walk away from St Joseph Cathedral and really worth a visit. The entrance fee is 20,000 dong. For us it was one of the better museums in the city. The museum tells the history of the prison starting with the French occupation and its function before and during the American War. Each room is introduced with some information around the function of the room and its prisoners. You can also watch a documentary filmed during the American War on prison life for the prisoners of war. The documentary is propagandist footage though and portrays prison life in a much more positive light than most of the actual prisoners will remember.  One of the most famous western prisoners was John McCain. His story about his capture and the five and a half years in prison greatly differs from anything portrayed in the film. It took us around an hour to complete the tour but you can easily spend more time in it.

For dinner we decided to proper mingle with the locals and go for some Bia Hoi at Bia Hoi Ha Noi on 2 P Duong Thanh. We also ordered some spare ribs to go with the beer which were very tasty indeed. Just opposite there is another Bia Hoi Ha Noi which clearly has copied the original and is trying to profit from its success. They have some kind of waiter placed outside to lure you in. Just ignore him and make sure you go to the original. Funnily enough we were the only foreigners in the place whilst Bia Hoi Ha Noi (the copied version) on the opposite corner saw a few more foreign faces that night. It probably doesn’t make a huge difference where you have your beer in the end but I just don’t like people tricking me into believing that I have come to the right place when I haven’t. There’s a bit of German pride involved in it all.

Vietnam Trip Day 11 – Flight to Hanoi and a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake

image

Day 11 of our journey was comparatively uneventful. We left the Lake House at 8.30 am to catch our flight from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. If you catch an internal flight from a small airport like Dong Hoi you can check in around an hour before the flight. A lot of Vietnamese left it even later and really arrived last minute. The check-in desks are a great place for people watching. Most of the Vietnamese don’t travel light but instead of packing everything into one suitcase they sellotape several cardboard boxes and check them in. I have no idea what the actual baggage regulations are but that sure is a funny sight. Once again we were given emergency seats because of the SO’s long limbs. The flight takes just over an hour which is great considering the same journey by train would have taken the best part of 12 hours. Not ideal if you only have 2 weeks to explore the whole country.

From the airport we took the VietJet airline shuttle bus which costs 40,000 dong per person and is a much cheaper option than the taxi into town. Show the driver the address of your destination and he will tell you where to get off. There aren’t any real fixed stops but don’t expect the driver to drop you off at the exact address. All he will and can do is let you off as close as his route permits. You can then always just flag down a taxi and pay a much cheaper fare overall. We were lucky enough that our hotel was only a five minute walk away. We arrived at the Splendid Star Suite Hotel 12.30pm and received a very friendly welcome as well as a refreshing ice cold drink. Our booked room wasn’t available for the night which didn’t really bother us as we were given a room with two king size beds instead of the one massive round bed.

We relaxed for a wee while before heading out to explore the neighborhood. The lovely manager of the hotel had given us a map of the local area with all the important bits and bops marked. First stop supermarket: Intimex on 32 Le Thai To. This is an almost Western style supermarket that sells all your daily needs from groceries to toiletries. If you have a fridge in your room it’s worthwhile stocking it up with goodies from this supermarket. It’s not that the minibar is likely to be expensive but we all like to save a penny or two. We then continued along the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake before having some lunch at Banh Ghoi – a proper street-food experience which is absolutely delicious. The stall is named after its signature dish Banh Ghoi, a deep-fried pastry filled with vermicelli, minced pork and mushrooms served with a sweet and sour cucumber chilled broth. I load mine with chili for a bit of an extra kick. All food served here is deep-fried so if you’re watching those calories then this might not be the place for you. Altough you will miss out on a great culinary experience. Vegetarian options are also available.
image

We spent the rest of the later afternoon chilling in the hotel and only went out for a quick Banh Mi Pate from a street vendor next to Banh Ghoi which wasn’t as good as Madam Khanh’s but still tasty enough. Some other foreign guy before us tried to haggle on the clearly listed fixed price which we found pathetic and if you know me personally you won’t be surprised that I told him so. A Banh Mi from the vendor is 15,000 dong – I hope you see my point. There’s a time and place for haggling but when it comes to extremely cheap street food simply pay the price or don’t bother eating at all.

Vietnam Trip Day 10 – Private tour around the park with Tony

image

Today we spent the day driving around the park with Tony. Park tours can be quite expensive starting at 45 dollars. Luckily Tony approached us on our first night at the Lake House and offered to be a tour guide for 50 dollars for the two of us which we happily accepted.

We drove off at 10am. First stop: Dark Cave. This is a relatively new adventure tour where you kayak or swim to the cave, wade through mud and then swim back to the cave opening in complete darkness. You can’t do the tour on your own so you have to pay 400, 000 dong for a guide at the docking station. This can be shared between a group of people although there is a limit to the group size. Equipment (life vest and head torch) costs an extra 80, 000 dong per person. It’s one of the more expensive caves but definitely worth it if you’re of the adventurous kind. They are currently installing a zip wire down to the cave which should be fun once completed. The park really is getting prepared and ready for large amounts of tourists from all over the world. If you want to be ahead of the masses, now is the time to go.

Our next stop was Paradise Cave which is 35km away from Son Trach and unless you’re confident to ride a scooter or motorbike you really need to book yourself on a tour or get a private driver. Ask at your hotel/hostel whether they can arrange it for you as the cave is worth every extra effort you have to put into getting there. Talking about effort, the cave opening is about a 15 minute level walk away from the ticket office. You can also take a buggy (100, 000 dong both ways; 60, 000 dong one way) to the foot of the mountain. However, the big struggle is getting yourself up the hill to the entrance. The signs say it’s a 500m walk uphill (quite steep) or you can take the approximately 500 steps. I would think walking uphill is easier but that’s your decision. Point is, bring water with you. The heat and humidity at this time of the year make every single step you take more and more difficult so it’s important to keep yourself hydrated. We are generally quite fit people but it wasn’t an easy climb. We saw a number of people really struggle to get up, but as I said before, the reward at the end is so worth the effort.
image

The cave opening is invitingly cool and extremely refreshing after the steep climb. To get down to the cave you take the wooden stairs which can be quite slippery so mind your step. The wooden pathway takes you about 1km into the cave. It’s obviously a lot longer but if you want to go in deeper you will need to book an extra tour which we didn’t. To be fair the first km is so magnificent you probably don’t need to spend the extra dong. In my opinion, the cave is by far more spectacular than Phong Nha. The rock formations are more varied and there are less people around (apart from the Vietnamese tour groups that appear in herds, are loud but disappear quite quickly as their tour guide who speaks through a megaphone is on a tight schedule). The whole “leave no trace” concept of eco-travelling is unknown to the tour groups so don’t be suprised to see people discarding their rubbish in the middle of the path rather than in the bins provided. Also, Vietnamese love photographs! So you may have to halt whilst a group of twenty people is shuffled around for the perfect picture. The groups are generally friendly and a lot of them come from remote areas of Vietnam. Some will take pictures of you or shake your hand. Just be nice and smile. After all they are on holiday and excited that you’ve come all the way to experience their country.
image

Our next stop was the Eco-Trail which was a rather disappointing item on the itinerary. The trail takes you around some forested land, across streams and the river. The bridges are made of bamboo. It could all be really scenic if it wasn’t for the litter left by day trip tourists all over the trail. Considering this is an eco trail we were really quite appalled. There were empty polystyrene boxes, cans, left-over food and cutlery everywhere even in the river designated for swimming. Maybe if you come during the week you won’t find as big a mess as we did and I hope that if you decide to do the eco trail you’ll have a better experience than us. The entrance to the eco trail is 50, 000 dong which hopefully pays for the staff that has to clean up the mess.
image

To get back to the Lake House we took the long way round the park which tour buses usually don’t take. The road is amazing though and brings you to the cross road to Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Highway. The Ho Chi Minh Highway is supposed to be one of the most beautiful routes in the world. So if you have the time and riding skills do take the trip. Our journey back took us over narrow mountain roads and rocky terrain which might be difficult to pass with a motorbike. It took us along rice fields and small villages. It’s just such a beautiful part of the country; it almost leaves you speechless.

Our last night in the national park was spent on the terrace of the Lake House. We met a really interesting Australian guy who is currently employed by the park and lives in a village nearby. He talked to us about conservation of the park and how tourism changes the local habitat. It was a pleasant and insightful last evening and we couldn’t have spent it with better company. Cheers Joel! 🙂

Vietnam Trip Day 9 – Phong Nha Cave

image

Today we fancied a bit of cycling. We first thought we’d be fine with a motor bike but after a few warnings by Tony and the English guys about the state of the roads and how travellers get injured by overestimating their biking skills decided against it. We’ve since met a few folk who said that they had their first motorbiking experience in Vietnam and came out alive and unharmed but we still wouldn’t risk it. Instead we cycled the 7km to Phong Nha Cave. I admit 7km isn’t really that long but in the tremendous heat everything is a lot harder and you will always arrive as a big hot sweaty mess at your destination.

Rather than taking the highway from the Lake House we took the quieter road through the local villages. It’s rice harvesting time at the moment so all the local farmers spread some sort of massive sheets out onto the road to dry the harvested rice before it gets milled. The grass is dried in the middle of the road and then piled up into stacks. It’s all very picturesque. 

The cycle to Son Trach took around 45 minuted but it might be quicker if you take the highway. In order to get to the cave you beed to hire a boat which seats 14 people and costs 320, 000 dong. Ideally you want to split the cost for the boat with other travellers but worst case scenario you could probably just get a boat to yourself. If you just hang about the ticket office for a few minutes though you will easily round up a group of people. The entrance fee to Phong Nha Cave is 80, 000 dong and if you want to go up to Tien Son Cave you pay an extra 40, 000 dong. The price for the boat, however, remains the same.

The boat tour to the cave takes approximately 40 minutes and takes you along small villages and beautiful lime stone mountains. It’s a beautiful landscape. Once you reach the cave the engine is switched off and the “guides” paddle through the cave. The outer part of the cave hosts hundreds of bats so mind their droppings once the boat’s canapé comes off.

The cave is simply stunning. Stalagmites, stalactites and rock formations make for amazing photo opportunities. Only a small part of the cave is currently open to the public and even a smaller proprotion is walkable. Once the boat has reached the end of the cave it turns around and drops you off before the cave opening enabling you to explore the set route through the cave yourself. The walking path is nowhere near as long as Paradise Cave and only takes about 15 minutes maximum. At the exit you have the option to climb up the stairs to Tien Son. Because the rest of the group only wanted to visit one cave we had to give it a miss. From what we’ve heard from other people though, Tien Son is even more impressive than Phong Nha so unless you’re planning on returning to the National Park any time soon just stand your ground and do it. Worst case the rest of the group will simply have to wait for you for a few minutes. The boat then takes you straight back to the pier which marks the end of the trip.

Our afternoon was rather uneventful. We cycled back to the Lake House and went for a swim in the lake, then had some dinner and a few beers enjoying the uninterrupted night sky.

Vietnam Trip Day 8 – Citadel in Hue, another train journey and first evening at Phong Nha Lake House

image

When we first arrived we weren’t very impressed with Hue but in the end we were happy that we came because the Citadel is amazing and well worth the overnight stay.

We left the hotel relatively early at half eight to beat the heat but failed miserably. Most Vietnamese are out and about at half four which is the only way for them to finish off their daily business before temperatures reach their peak. Having said that rice workers are attending their fields all day long even in the mid day sun.

The citadel is approximately a 15 minute walk from the hotel, Entrance fee is 120, 000 dong unless you want a guide for whom you’ll pay extra. But it’s really not expensive and worth it if you have enough time to explore it. There are English and French speaking guides available and from what we managed to listen into they are fluent and proficient. Unfortunately, we had to check out at the hotel at noon and had to do the quick tour relying once again on our travel bible. You can easily spend the best part of a day inside the walls but if you’re on a tight schedule than you can see all important temples and buildings within three hours. Hue was heavily destroyed by the Americans. You can still see bullet holes in some of the Citadel’s walls. Some of the complex is now only ruins. Restoration work, however, is in progress and a good number of buildings have already been lovingly restored to their former glory. The Royal Theatre and To Mieu Temple Complex which is dedicated to the former Nguyen emperors have already been beautifully restored.

The purpose, function and layout of the Hue Citadel are very similar to those of the Forbidden City in Beijing. We much preferred our Citadel experience though as it is a lot less crowded and less artificial. Whereas the Forbidden City is a destination for mass tourism, the remains of the Citadel are much more tranquil and picturesque.

Check out at noon went smoothly. With an hour and a half to spare we decided to have some lunch and a few beers in the hotel’s restaurant. They have a Vietnamese set menu from which you can order a regional dish or two rather than going for all 6 or 7 dishes. Whilst the food was quite good the atmosphere wasn’t. The waiter rather annoyingly goes over to tables and gives rather bad renditions of “You raise me up” and “I want it that way” – the only songs in his repertoire – whilst you’re trying to enjoy your food. His main target seem to be female travel groups who then akwardly applaud him, finish their food extremely quickly and leave the place. Can’t blame the poor souls. Needless to say we were this tine happy to move on to our  next destination after an overall not so great experience at the Google Hotel.

The train journey from Hue to Dong Hoi was uneventful and not as scenic as the one from Danang to Hue. At least we had fully functioning AC this time and seats rather than a mouldy mattress. The train journey takes approximately 3 hours.

We arrived in Dong Hoi just after 5.30pm where our driver was already waiting for us. We had arranged the transport from the station to Phong Nha Lake House a few days earlier. Taxis are also available outside the station. The trip to Son Trach which is at the centre of Phong Nha Khe Bang costs around 500, 000 dong but you will need to bargain for that price. The drive takea around half an hour to 40 minutes. Buses are also available but they are running at irregular intervals.

Phong Nha Lake House is in a stunning setting overlooking the lake and mountains. Our room has a small terrace overlooking the lake. It’s on the smaller side but big enough for two with a four poster bed and sofa as well as en suite shower room complete with a rain shower. Simple yet stylish and comfortable. There is no fridge in the room but cold drinks can be bought at the bar/restaurant upstairs in the main building.

In the evening we spent some time with Tony who owns the Lake House and two guys from England, one of whom has written songs for Gabrielle, Tina Turner, and many others. The guys bought motorbikes back in Hanoi and are now travelling across the country. They were meant to leave that night but a little crash after after too much rice wine meant that one of them wasn’t fit to drive. We’re so glad they stayed as we had a pretty good night. There was singing (well if you can call it that), banter, good laughs and some twisted story about how this Vietnamese mechanic (who fixed one of the guy’s bikes) ended up in prison for 3.5 years over heroine. What an eventful evening! Anyway, point is, the terrace is a great hang out to meet some pretty interesting people who all have an amazing story to tell. Especially after a few bia!

It really is amazing what kind of people you meet on the road. They all become your best friend for the night and you’re sad to see them go. But then there is a new beautiful sunrise and the next best friend appears out of nowhere…