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 South East 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 South East 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.

 

Laos: Trekking, Tubing & Mushroom Shakes

Laos was the one country I was visiting in South East Asia which I knew next to nothing about (other than my friends telling me how much fun tubing was), so I really didn’t know what to expect.

While most of our friends in Thailand were booking the longboat straight to Luang Prabang, we hopped on a cheap bus to Huay Xai (a tiny town found right at the Laos border), along with a fellow backpacker from Sweden.

As the Lonely Planet puts it, in Huay Xai, “the only things trafficked through are travellers en route to Luang Prabang.” We were unsure of our next move, so after chatting to Sophie the other traveller with us, we chose to book a bus with her further North to Luang Namtha.

Luang Namtha

Located right next to the beautiful Namha National Park, which is popular with tourists for jungle trekking, we were eager to get our hiking shoes on and see some amazing scenery. We opted for a two day jungle trek and kayak tour along with some friends before trying our first Laotian dish – Jao (I believe this is how it’s spelt!) This has to be one of my favourite Asian dishes so far. It may vary in other areas of Laos, but the one we had consisted of two sauce based dishes of your choice (I opted for peanut and tomato) and a big basket of sticky rice – delicious is an understatement for sure.

Jungle feast!

Trekking in the jungle has to be one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my trip so far, and I’m really glad I took part in it. The day of trekking was certainly challenging (our tour guides Hak and Mi were literally cutting some form of a path with machetes!) Having grown up in a local village nearby, Hak and Mi were experts in jungle life and it was fantastic to get off the beaten track a bit and see some awesome scenery. My favourite part of the experience was definitely the food. Our guides bought a few bits from the market beforehand (such as rice and vegetables) but also picked some fresh ingredients straight from the jungle. We ate with our hands straight off banana leaves and even drank out of cups freshly fashioned from bamboo! In the evening, we slept on the jungle floor, underneath a shelter made from sticks and banana leaves and enjoyed playing some guitar around a fire. This is also when we got to try the infamous ‘Laos Laos’ whiskey – now I’m not usually a whiskey fan, but a shot of this was just what I needed to warm me up and send me to sleep!

We welcomed a day of kayaking after a long day of trekking, and it was so much fun steering our way through the rapids and cooling off in the midday heat. Hak and Mi also took us to a local village there and told us all about the village lifestyle. It was wonderful to see so many excited children (6 of which attempted to fit on one bicycle!)

Luang Prabang

I was ready to get back into a thriving city with hot showers after a couple of days in the jungle. We arrived in Luang Prabang early the next day, after the craziest overnight bus ride of my life (think broken seats flying off from underneath you and people being sick into bags as you bounce along really windy roads). Confident that we’d be able to check into a hostel as soon as one opened, we grabbed some breakfast and a hot drink as we waited.

However this proved to be more difficult than we’d anticipated! Due to the Chinese New Year, pretty much everywhere had been booked up by Chinese tourists who go away to celebrate. Luckily, a group of four tourists overheard us asking a hostel if they had rooms and told us they were just about to check out and could have their beds – success!

For a relatively small sized city, Luang Prabang has a lot going on, so I can see why it’s a popular choice for Chinese holiday-goers to see in the New Year. Every evening, one of the main streets turns into a massive night market, full of tasty food and cheap goods. After a few beers at the night market, we’d usually head over to Utopia – a popular bar with backpackers. Once Utopia closes for the night, the crowd all descend to a nearby bowling alley (the only venue open after hours). If you’ve never seen a room full of drunken bowlers, then you need to get yourself to Luang Prabang, as it’s one of the funniest sights I’ve ever seen.

As it’s a small city, one of the best ways to get around is by bicycle, as you can follow a pretty route along the Mekong River around the city. We took our bicycles across the river to go visit the Pottery Village, however be warned, these city bikes are not designed for the bumpy dirt tracks and hills found on the other side!

A local showing us how to make a pot

The most popular tourist attraction in Luang Prabang is the waterfalls, which you can get to by tuk-tuk. We ended up missing this out, opting for some free attractions instead. Although I’ve heard amazing things about these waterfalls, so I’d definitely visit them if I came here again.

Highlights for us include the Wat Tham Phousi temple of Phousi Hill (great views of the city, especially at sunset) and the UXO Laos Visitor Center. While it’s easy to miss amongst the beautiful temples and riverside views, the UXO Visitor Centre is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the harrowing effects of bombing in Laos. Little did I know before visiting, that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The centre tells you all about the history of the bombing and the devastating effects it’s had and continues to have on many communities and families across Laos. It was an eye-opening visit which I will not forget.

View from Wat Tham Phousi

Vang Vieng

Home to the infamous tubing I’d heard about, Vang Vieng was the city I was most looking forward to visiting in Laos. However, our visit didn’t quite get off to the best start, as we discovered late at night that our booked hostel had given our beds away because we were an hour late! After discovering that most hostels were either closed for the night or booked up, we managed to find one with one bed available. Edd kindly let me take it, while the hostel owner let him sleep in a hammock outside for free – much to my friend’s delight! We also got treated to a late night meal from the owner and free breakfast the next day. Unfortunately Edd had gotten pretty ill in Luang Prabang and so we temporarily said our goodbyes as he hopped on a bus to Vientiane to go to hospital.

Suddenly I found myself feeling as nervous as I was in Bangkok and the thought of turning up to a hostel all on my own was frightening! I returned to our booked hostel, who luckily had beds available again, and the owner was very sympathetic; offering me a free night’s stay to make up for it. It wasn’t long before I got chatting to people in my dorm room and headed out with one of the girls to explore the town.

Before we knew it, we were heading back to the hostel to change into our bikinis to go tubing! I can definitely see why tubing is a popular activity in Vang Vieng – who doesn’t like the idea of floating in a rubber tube on a sunny day with a nice cold beverage in hand? The tubing takes place along a river where several bars are situated. You can choose to stop off at any bar you like for a drink before carrying on back down the river towards to town. It wasn’t long before me and my new friend were playing beer bong and downing numerous shots. That’s when the tubing becomes more challenging, especially with the slight current! It was in the next bar when we discovered that our ‘dry bag’ wasn’t quite so dry after all…

We hastily rushed back to the hostel and whacked our phones straight into a bowl of rice.

Ziplining in Vang Vieng

But not to let that ruin the night, we joined others in our hostel and took advantage of the free whiskey provided by our hostel between 7 and 10pm. After drunkenly losing a few games of foosball and pool, myself and a few others headed to one of the bars offering the infamous mushroom shakes. I hadn’t yet tried magic mushrooms, although I’ve heard a few good things about them from friends, so I was excited to give them a go. Usually I detest mushrooms, but they were pretty much undetectable in the pineapple flavoured shake. It was a fun and wonderful experience, and I actually woke up with make-up smudged under my eyes from laughing so much!

Other than activities like kayaking, tubing and ziplining, there isn’t much else to do in the center of Vang Vieng besides drinking and enjoying the sunshine. On our last day, my friend and I went ziplining over the forest and river before getting back in a tube to go through some caves. It was an awesome adrenaline-filled day, and we finished off with some cocktails at Smile Beach Bar on the riverfront.

View from Smile Beach Bar

Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the South of Laos, which I’m pretty gutted about after having such a blast in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. I was pleasantly surprised about Laos, and even though I’ve only seen a snippet of what the country has to offer, it’s definitely up there with one of the best countries I’ve visited so far.