Vietnam: The Ho Chi Minh Trail, Part 2

The drive from Phong Nha to Khe San is simply breathtaking. You hardly ever see other traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail, instead, you’re surrounded by forests and waterfalls. As much as we loved the Ho Chi Minh trail, we decided we wanted to take the quicker route to Hue so we could spend the afternoon sightseeing. So we said goodbye to our friends and agreed to meet that evening, before hopping back on our bike (which we’d named Sydney) to Hue!

Hue

One of my absolute favourite things to do when the opportunity arises is to visit abandoned places – I just find them fascinating. We’d heard from some friends about an abandoned water park called Ho Thuy Tien and of course I was absolutely desperate to go (photos can be seen here).

While there were a fair few other tourists around the water park when we went, it was still by no means busy, which was perfect for capturing some eerie photos of the place. The most distinct feature of the park has to be the massive dragon in the middle of lake, which has been completely overtaken by nature. Inside, you can see the remains of smashed up tanks which once encased reptiles, including crocodiles. I love the idea of these cases being smashed open, leaving the animals to live free in the water park and claim it as their own…

Around the park you can also find rusty water slides, a big amphitheater and even a 4D virtual reality Thrillrider machine. It certainly has to be the highlight of my time in Vietnam.

The city of Hue has a rich imperial history, and there are many things to explore including tombs, temples and pagodas. We visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, which is ‘regarded as the unofficial symbol of the city.’ Situated alongside the river, the Pagoda features a very pretty courtyard.

Our favourite thing we visited in the city however is the tomb of Tu Doc. While the tombs themselves are mainly remains, the site is surrounded by a beautiful lake and gardens. Unfortunately we didn’t get time to explore the Imperial City, although we’ve heard that those tombs don’t live up to that of Tu Doc, so we weren’t overly disappointed.

We spent our last night in Hue with our friends who had caught us up from Phong Nha. We found ourselves being entinced into Brown Eyes club for some cheap cocktails and dancing with the locals.

Hoi An

Now Hoi An has to be my favourite place in Vietnam. We arrived in Hoi An where we were staying at a lovely home stay, before we headed out to explore the town in the evening. After finding ourselves at the entrance to the old town we’d heard about, we purchased a ticket which allows you into 5 attractions in the old town (although the majority are free). We didn’t know what to expect, but as we crossed the Japanese Covered Bridge, we were completely taken aback by an endless show of brightly coloured lanterns lighting up the entire town. It’s honestly a sight to behold at night.

Favourite attractions we visited include the Chinese Assembly Hall and a photography exhibition from French photographer Réhahn. His photographs are absolutely stunning, and it was fascinating to learn all about the different tribes across Vietnam.

All in all, there’s plenty to do in Hoi An’s old town, both in the daytime and the evening. Full of bars and restaurants, we enjoyed more 12p beer and a pub quiz at the 3 Dragons Restaurant & Bar (we’re pretty sure we came last).

Dalat

As it’s a pretty long way from Hoi An to Dalat, we took Sydney the scooter on a night bus to Nha Trang to save some time. It’s amazing how much stuff they can cram onto buses, and we tried not to panic when we saw them dismantle the wheels and luggage rack from our scooter!

So we made it to Nha Trang to watch the sunrise over the sea and enjoyed a quick paddle before driving onto Dalat.

We arrived at Lucky D’s Hostel (which is ridiculously good value for money at £2 a night)! On arrival, we met the infamous owner Lucky who we’d read rave reviews about on Hostelworld. He invited us to join him for breakfast and we enjoyed a nice chat while we fussed his cute pet dogs. Lucky D’s Hostel is a really unique experience compared to other hostels we’ve stayed at. With just two floors filled with up to 10 beds, you get to meet all the other backpackers staying there. Every night Lucky takes everyone in the hostel out for a meal, and it’s such a great way of getting everyone together.

A group we met on our first day at the hostel invited us to explore Dalat with them, so we all headed into town to visit Hang Nga Crazy House, a strange architectural project which according to Lonely Planet is ‘becoming more outlandish every year.’  I personally loved the experience, with my family all being very interested in art and quirky architecture, but some of my friends found it to be a bit silly! Definitely worth checking out though if you want to see something a bit different in Dalat.

As there’s not much else to do in the city centre, Dalat is best explored by motorbike, so our friends rented some bikes and joined us the next day for some waterfall hopping. First we dropped into the weasel coffee plantation, where coffee is grown using, yep you guessed it, weasel poop! As a non-coffee drinker, this didn’t sound very appealing, but Edd splashed out on a cup and assured me it was delicious!

Now, the best waterfall in Dalat has to be Elephant Waterfall – its gushing waters are truly awe-inspiring. And if you’re feeling adventurous, (and up for getting drenched) you can climb down behind the waterfall for another view.

One thing I’d found out about online and was this so called ‘haunted house’, which of course I was eager to get some creepy photographs of. However, when we turned up to the house we were pretty disappointed. Instead of a decomposing, abandoned mansion, we found a relatively done-up house and a group of locals eating inside. A few other tourists turned up and tried to explore the house, but I’m not convinced they found much!

Cat Tien National Park

After hearing some bad stories about the police catching tourists on motorbikes in Mui Ne, we decided to skip it and head to Cat Tien National Park instead. Since we hadn’t done any trekking since Hanoi, we were excited to get back out into the wilderness again.

We stayed at an amazing lodge right next to the national park, so close in fact, that we could even hear the gibbons singing! Everything about the lodge was generous, from the massive food portions to the fact we had a room with 3 double beds in to ourselves!

The national park is absolutely massive, and while there are a few walking routes you can take, the majority of the park remains unexplored. On the first day, we did a short walking route before visiting the bear rescue sanctuary in the afternoon. The sanctuary has both black bears and sun bears who have been rescued from bear bile farms and poachers, and the guide was really helpful and informative.

On our last day, we set off at 6.30am to tackle the long route through the park, which takes you to Crocodile Lake and back. In total, it took around 8 hours and it’s safe to say I was absolutely exhausted by the end! However we did manage to see some gibbons high up the trees, which totally makes up for it.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I’d heard relatively good things about Ho Chi Minh City, so I was excited to reach our final stop. However, we soon discovered that our very cheap hostel was on the busy strip of bars, bearing resemblance to that of Khao San Road. By the time we managed to find somewhere to park, we were keen to just grab some food and have an early night after such a long drive.

The main highlight for me in Ho Chi Minh is the War Remnants Museum, which informs you all about the history of American and Vietnamese war. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about such events from a Vietnamese point of view, and I was extremely shocked by the disturbing photographs on display showing the devastating effects of Agent Orange and the My Lai Massacre. It’s truly worth a visit.

Usually, backpackers will sell their motorbike in either Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi depending on the route they took. However, after some thought, we decided to drive Sydney the Scooter over the Cambodian border, for the next chapter of our adventure!

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Vietnam: The Ho Chi Minh Trail, Part 1

If there was one country I was most excited about visiting during my trip it was Vietnam, after 3 different friends of mine told me it was their favourite place in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, it’s popular with tourists and backpackers to explore the country by motorbike on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which runs all the way from North to South (and vice versa). Me and Edd were both keen to buy a bike and see for ourselves what all the fuss was about!

Hanoi

I met Edd in Hanoi after a tiresome 35 hour journey from Vang Vieng on a cramped sleeper bus. I’d heard a lot about the crazy traffic in Hanoi and found that the city certainly lived up to the rumours as I was greeted by a sea of noisy motorbikes. As crazy as the city seemed at first, we soon discovered that Hanoi has some beautiful spots where you can escape from the hustle and bustle. This includes the Hoàn Kiêm Lake, where you can visit the Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, situated on a small island in the middle of the lake. This has to be one of my favourite temples yet, as it’s surrounded by trees protruding out the lake.

Other areas of interest include the Temple of Literature, which feels like a very traditional Vietnamese temple, and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which gives you a very interesting and informative insight into the history of Vietnamese independence. As you wander around the prison cells and lay your eyes on the still in-tact guillotine, you get an eerie feel for what the prison would have been like for the unlucky prisoners who were trapped there.

After a busy couple of days exploring the attractions Hanoi had to offer, especially the harrowing prison, we were keen to sample the Vietnamese beer to see if it could compete with Laos. While Hanoi is not short of bars, we found ourselves returning every night to the same spot along with a group of travellers we met on the first night. Many locals brew their own beer, which they serve from the side of the street out of a big keg for around 15p a glass. For such a cheap price, we couldn’t even think of drinking anywhere else!

Before coming to Vietnam, I’d been told by some girls I met in Thailand that I absolutely had to try the infamous Vietnamese egg coffees. While this sounded like an extremely odd concoction to me (especially as I don’t like coffee), Edd was determined to give one a try. To my delight, the place we found also served egg hot chocolate, so we gave both a try. And that was it – we were hooked!

Cat Ba Island & Halong Bay

I’d already seen wonderful pictures of Halong Bay and its dozens of islands, so I was excited to get out of the city and onto a boat to Cat Ba Island. However, when we arrived in Cat Ba we found ourselves wrapping up in all our layers as the weather temperature dropped for the first time on our trip. On Cat Ba, the main tourist attraction is the big national park, which can be reached easily by motorbike. So we spent a day trekking in the national park, which offered the most amazing views of the mountains, before finishing off  with a visit to Hospital Cave.

As Cat Ba is such a small place, I decided to have a go on the automatic scooter we’d rented to see if I could handle driving one from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. After nearly crashing the bike in a ditch, it was safe to say that I was sticking to the back of the bike for the rest of the trip!

We finished our last day in Cat Ba on one of the 3 quiet beaches on the islands. I was happy to finally see the sea!

We booked a slow boat to Halong Bay so we could admire the spectacular views of the many islands protruding out of the sea. Luckily, the sun decided to re-emerge, and we were thrilled to roll our trousers up and enjoy the rays on the boat’s top deck.

Back in Hanoi, we bought an automated scooter from a couple who were also backpacking through Southeast Asia. They’d already driven the Ho Chi Minh trail but in the opposite direction to us. Then, we were off to our first stop on the Ho Chi Minh trail – Ninh Binh!

Ninh Binh & Vinh

After having trouble driving our way out of Hanoi (including driving on a car only road), we welcomed the peacefulness and serenity of Ninh Binh. Already, we could see why it’s so popular to travel Vietnam by bike as we swerved our way through the paddy fields. We had a quick stop off in Tam Coc where we got to explore an awesome temple surrounded by rock formations – giving us some amazing views of the Ninh Binh.

As we were rather pushed for time after spending so much time in Hanoi, we swiftly made our way to Vinh where we spent the night before getting up early to get back on the road.

Phong Nha

I’ve been told that if you don’t visit Phong Nha in Vietnam then you haven’t truly experienced Vietnam at all. Boasting some of the biggest natural caves in the world, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park truly is a site to behold. According to the Lonely Planet, the mountains in the park are oldest in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. 

Some of the most popular choices of caves to visit include Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Dark Cave costs around 450,000 dong for all the activities, including the zip-line and mud bath, while Paradise Cave only costs 250,000. After speaking to the one of the staff members at our hostel, we opted to just pay for the Paradise Cave as he assured us “You cannot say you’ve been to Phong Nha if you’ve not visited Paradise Cave,” and we were travelling on a budget after all. And the caves sure did not disappoint – they were huge! Unfortunately I didn’t take the best camera with me, so all the pictures I got of the caves did not do them justice.

As we were waiting to enter the caves, we bumped into our friend from Hanoi who was travelling with someone else from the Netherlands. We invited them for a drink at our hostel Easy Tiger before we all headed to the only bar that was open late in Phong Nha.

It turned out our friends had also bought motorbikes and were driving the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so we all left Phong Nha together and made our way towards Hue, stopping off in a small town called Khe Sanh on the way.

 

North Thailand: Temples, Elephants, Waterfalls & Fire Shows

When I think of Thailand, I’d always just pictured beautiful white beaches, drug-fueled Full Moon parties and close encounters with elephants and tigers.

Knowing what my terrible sense of geography was like, my dad sent me on my way with a Lonely Planet travel guide, making me promise him that I’d do some research and not end up on the wrong flight.

Bangkok

I arrived in Bangkok in the late evening, and was already full of fear; what if I can’t find the hostel? What if I get mugged on the way? And what if some dodgy taxi driver drives to kidnap me?! But within minutes I was chatting away with my taxi driver and my nerves soon turned into excitement.

After a few failed attempts at teaching me how to say ‘thank you’ in Thai, we made it to my hostel, where I was reunited with my friend, who had already made a few other friends in the hostel.

Despite being exhausted from the journey, we soon found ourselves wandering down the infamous Khao San Road; a chaotic jungle of street vendors, bars and restaurants, selling everything from cocktail buckets and scorched scorpions to handmade ‘I love pussy’ wristbands and ping-pong shows.

Somehow the scorpions didn’t quite have the same appeal as the buckets, so we bought some mojitos before calling it a night!

After the mayhem of Khao San Road, we decided it was probably time to explore the sights, and prove to my dad that I wasn’t just going away to get drunk all the time.

I’d been told by friends who had been to Bangkok before that ‘it was a shithole, but a loveable shithole’, so it’s safe to say that my expectations of the city hadn’t been that high. However there are loads of wonderful things to see without venturing too far out of the city.

We splashed out on the Grand Palace Complex and Wat Phra Kaew, which the Lonely Planet insists is the must-see attraction in Bangkok. Both of course had stunning architecture (although you couldn’t get very close to the palace itself) but we found ourselves enjoying some of the smaller attractions much more.

It was a massive relief to be greeted by a calm and relatively empty Wat Pho/Reclining Buddha after the crowded palace complex, and the Buddha was overwhelmingly impressive in size.

Another highlight for us was the Golden Mount, which, situated atop Bangkok’s only hill, gave us a fantastic view of the city.


On our last day, we decided to have a break from the temples and visit the Chatuchak Market, one of the largest weekend markets in the world. The market is far bigger than I ever imagined and features several different sections, including food, clothing, pets, electronics and more.

We treated ourselves to some tasty fruit smoothies and street food before finishing off the day with a relaxing boat trip down the Chao Phraya river.

Chiang Mai

One overnight bus later we arrived in Chiang Mai along with several other travellers at 4.30am. Longing to get to our hostel beds, we hopped in a taxi only to find our hostel was shut for the night.

Unlike the streets of Bangkok where you can buy cheap street food until the early hours, Chiang Mai goes to sleep around midnight, so we resorted to buying a cheap pot noodle from a local supermarket.

The first thing I was keen to do in Chiang Mai was to get up close and personal with some elephants. As I was fully aware about the animal cruelty surrounding certain elephant camps in South East Asia, I specifically chose a sanctuary which didn’t offer riding and had good reviews online. I did the half-day tour, where you got to feed and wash the elephants before having a swim in a nearby waterfall.

It was wonderful to finally see elephants up close, however I can’t help but still worry about the way they’re treated, although the staff did seem very caring towards them. I think next time, I will do further research and choose one of the proper care homes where you just get to see the elephants wander around rather than taking part in the organised activities with them.


After a good night’s rest we visited a few local temples, including Wha Phra Sing, before stumbling across a beautiful park in the heart of the city. With pretty flowers and fountains everywhere, the park is a popular spot for yoga and we found ourselves surrounded by yoga and circus enthusiasts taking part in an acro-yoga festival.

Sitting next to the water, it was a perfect spot to enjoy a bit of afternoon relaxing and reading.


Desperate to get out of the city and into the countryside, we rented a scooter and drove out to the nearby nature park for some trekking and sightseeing.

On the drive up, we stopped off at the Phuphing Palace, next to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple. While you can’t go into the palace itself, you do get to look around the beautiful gardens with the most colourful floral displays you can imagine.

The nature trekking trail led us to a fantastic viewpoint where we could really appreciate the vast size of the forest. We decided to cool off with a dip in a little waterfall pool we found, which was certainly refreshing after walking around in the heat!

Pai

If there’s anywhere in Northern Thailand I was most excited to visit it was Pai. Promises of a hippy paradise did not disappoint, and as soon as we arrived we knew the windy and bumpy road journey there was worth it.

In Pai, it’s a popular choice to rent scooters and explore the pretty scenery around the small town, however we opted to just do an all day tour which included bamboo rafting and exploring the nearby caves, a viewpoint, hot springs and a waterfall before finishing off at the canyon to see the sunset.

I was surprised they managed to fit so many activities into one day, but it was a fantastic day from start to finish. Local tour guides took us through the caves, and although they couldn’t speak much English, they delighted in pointing out rock formations in the shapes of various animals like snakes, crocodiles and elephants. Our tour lady even giggled away after pointing out a rock that looked like a breast!

The highlight of the day for me had to be the hot springs and the canyon – the sunset was just beautiful.

The following day we moved hostel to the Famous Circus Hostel, where we were eager to meet up with some friends from Chiang Mai. Circus is the perfect hostel for relaxing in the day and socialising at night. It was great to finally get in a bikini and enjoy some sun by the pool – although I made the classic British mistake of getting burnt to a crisp on the first day. But it was nothing a little aftersun couldn’t sort out!


The Circus Hostel features different activities every night, from fire shows to beer pong tournaments.

On our first night, we watched a fire show where performers did poi, staff and hula-hooping. Being a poi enthusiast himself, my friend  Edd performed some fire poi as part of the show as well.

Like Chiang Mai, the bars in Pai close around midnight, however one bar, Don’t Cry, stays open until the early hours. So most nights we found ourselves following the sea of glitter-clad travellers to Don’t Cry for some more drinking and dancing.


Pai was the perfect place to rejuvenate after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and Chiang Mai and it is certainly my favourite place out of the three.

Although we only visited a snippet of north Thailand, it’s been the perfect start to my Southeast Asia travels and I’m already certain that I’ll be back here again!