It’s admittedly taken a while for me to get round to writing this blog, partly because my experience in Vietnam was so incredible and multi-faceted that I’ve been wondering how I’m going to be able to do it justice, and partly because I’ve had so much other writing to do – a girl’s gotta pay the rent, you know? But now, sat in my sunny garden, exhausted from a productive week of content marketing after seven months back in the UK, travel nostalgia has struck, so I’m going to give it a good go.
I believe when we left off I was just boarding a train from Hanoi – the bustling, motorbike-filled Northern metropolis of Vietnam – down to Hue, the country’s faded former capital.
I’d – of course – put off booking the tickets for the overnight journey until the last minute, but as I waved Clare off to the airport I decided I’d better plan my next move. The concierge of the fancy Apricot Hotel I was staying at looked stricken as he advised me to put my journey off until the following day. All the VIP seats and beds usually allocated to tourists on the overnight train had been taken, and – were I to foolishly go ahead that night – I’d be stuck with the riff raff, no doubt horrifying my western sensibilities.
Undeterred (nothing could be worse than the legendary Luang Prabang>Hanoi hell bus after all), I decided to go ahead. It was fine. The fact the seats didn’t recline meant little to me after months spent on overnight transportation, and while I was often woken up during the night by train workers pushing trollies and insisting I try traditional Vietnamese dumplings, which were a sort of luminous white colour (“no thank you”), I got a relatively good night’s sleep.
Hue: Tourist bars, faded glory, and a glimpse into a very different Vietnam
I’d chosen Hue as my next destination due to its myriad of historical gems and proximity to the DMZ (de-militarised zone). I lugged my bag off the train, took a motorbike taxi to my hotel and – after being force fed several strange fruits by reception on arrival – dumped my bags and took a walk around town.
Hue felt small after Hanoi, and my hotel was firmly in the low-end tourist part of town, surrounded by backpacker bars and hostels. To my surprise, a walk up the river unearthed some extremely fancy five star hotels surrounded by fountains and high-performance cars, and after successfully navigating the pedestrian route across a huge bridge, I found myself in the old town. Like Hanoi, this was full of shops selling all manner of goods, from handbags and shoes to kitchen utensils and motorbike parts. And it wouldn’t be Vietnam without the numerous cafes spilling out of locals’ homes onto the street, where people relaxed in the tiny purple chairs around spitting pans of Pho, the women serving up and the men chattering away as they swigged Bia Ha Noi.
On my meander I’d had some of the usual hassle from tuk-tuk and taxi drivers demanding I take a lift from them, asking where my friends were (ooooooh BURN) and following me for some way, but this was nothing compared to the harassment I’d come to expect in Asia’s major cities.
Through a gauntlet of tuk-tuk drivers and into Hue’s past
Hue’s Imperial City was where the grand Vietnamese Emperors ruled from during the 19th century and some of the 20th, until the Battle of Hue in 1968. This event saw North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers seize the city, forcing American troops to launch an attack, which substantially damaged the elaborate structures.
Initially, I struggled to get through the city walls due to a group of tuk-tuk drivers surrounding me and telling me it was closed, but that for a small fee, they would take me around some other historic Hue locations. This smacked of the cons I had fallen for in Thailand, and at the risk of looking foolish, I just marched ahead into the – completely open for business – grounds, as they shouted “YOU CRAZY” at me. Never gets old, that.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the one-time glorious city is in parts peaceful and well-manicured, while other sections are almost completely decimated. While the information within mainly focused on the site’s golden past, avoiding talk of the war, it was fascinating to learn about the small window of Vietnam’s history where it was finally – after centuries of turmoil – autonomous.
For a large part of the past two millennia Vietnam was ruled on-and-off by China. It was taken over by France in the 1800s, and then became independent for a short time before being subjected to what the Vietnamese know as The American War. These days it is a proud and independent communist nation, with ‘Uncle Ho‘ to thank.
Brits abroad: My best Peter Kay impression
My Hue hotel was surprisingly luxurious for the price tag, and I spent a couple of very enjoyable nights in a backpacker bar interestingly called ‘DMZ’ that served me up some garlic bread tomato – my favourite – and Dalat White.
In Hue more than anywhere else on my trip I got questioned as to why I was by myself. One morning a waitress told me that I should travel with friends and family “so you have someone to talk to”. But I was enjoying my time alone: it meant I could see what I wanted to, do what I wanted to, and – importantly – that no-one would judge my often boozy evening meals.
Travellers are a social bunch, and when I wanted a chat there were people to talk to, whether at hostels, restaurants and bars, or on sightseeing trips – however tedious these conversations often were…
Go-to traveller conversations: “Where are you from?”, “Where have you been?”, “Where are you going?”, “Sit here and drink your beer in an increasingly angry fashion while I explain to you precisely why and how I’m better at travelling than you are”.
While I’ve always enjoyed my own company, I’m also pretty sociable and had wondered how I’d cope with travelling alone for so long. What I really found (besides myself – ha!) was that it forced me to become more independent and resourceful. Ultimately, when you’re alone at the midnight hour on a roadside in a country that you believe is probably Vietnam but could be Laos, it’s self-reliance or bust.
The De-militarised Zone (DMZ)
One day in Hue I decided to take a trip to the DMZ, which turned out to be both fascinating and moving in turn. As our coach motored past endless rice fields shimmering in the morning sun, our guide talked to us about how the north and the Viet Cong had fought for communism against American troops and the south. It was hard to imagine savage warfare and brutality taking place in such a beautiful, peaceful place. Vietnam remains a proudly communist country to this day, although some of the rules have been relaxed: citizens are now allowed to talk amongst themselves about politics – but never to foreigners. Asking locals about politics is a huge taboo, and such questions will likely see the recipient become angry or embarrassed.
That day we visited a DMZ museum, which counted planes, tanks, and shells from the war among its collection, as well as bunkers that troops would have sheltered in. Inside there were hundreds photographs of both Vietnamese and American soldiers alongside highly emotive captions. The rhetoric of these museums is – understandably – staunchly anti-American, with Vietnamese troops painted as heroes, and the US forces as cowardly. That said, spending time learning about this complex war made me feel sorry for all the young troops coerced into this savage battle, whether they were Viet Cong soldiers risking their lives at night on the Ho Chi Minh trail, or the American teenage boys in a strange land, with no choice but to chase Vietnamese soldiers into cramped tunnels, only to find themselves caught in lethal, bloody traps.
On the DMZ tour, we also visited a tunnel network where locals were forced to live for years during the conflict. There are many of these tunnels throughout the country and while some are open to tourists, the location of others is thought to be classified in case the nation should ever need to head underground once more. These tunnels were undoubtedly instrumental in the north’s victory over capitalism.
Descent into the Vinh Moc tunnels was an eye-opening experience; and one that caused a sudden onset of claustrophobia among many of the westerners on the tour. The tunnels – originally dug so locals could avoid ground troops and their guns – have had to be fortified since they were originally built so that significantly larger western tourists can fit in them. Even then, one American man on our tour was unable to enter the tunnels due to his size, leaving his wife and daughter to go it alone. We went down three levels into this labyrinth, walking and crawling past minuscule rooms – used for ammunitions storage and as family homes – that had been carved out of the earth decades before.
The American man’s wife became overcome with claustrophobia on the top level, and asked me to look after her – very brave – daughter during the rest of the tour. I obviously obliged, and not wanting to look like a loser in front of this 11-year-old, had to remain in the unsettling tunnels for the rest of the tour. It was a relief – to say the least – to emerge into daylight at the other side. It’s incredible to think people lived down there for years – eating and drinking, attending school, receiving medical treatment, passing away, and even giving birth deep underground.
On our way back we stopped to look at the entrance to the notorious Ho Chi Minh trail – now marked by a statuesque white bridge, which was famously how the Viet Cong passed ammunitions and supplies up to troops in the north.
Biking from Hue to Hoi An: One of the best days ever
And then it was time for something I’d been looking forward to since I got to Vietnam: riding up and over the Hai Van Pass on the back of a motorbike!
I had admittedly developed something of a penchant for riding motorbikes during my trip. That said, around 33 people die every day on the roads of Vietnam due to motorbike accidents – and this is hardly astounding given that most drivers on the roads seem to have a death wish.
I’d heard countless horror stories and seen so many wounds from travellers who tried to go it alone and got on the wrong side of Asia’s crazy drivers, from the guy who was thrown from his motorbike into a rice field only to be hosed down by a kindly farmer, to my friend Jordan, who got in a two-wheeled tumble and was forced to spend over a week in Pai recovering.
In major backpacker destinations, you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing painful-looking injuries no doubt brought on by a motoring accident. Indeed, I’d sported my own war wounds back in Koh Tao after almost going through a shop front on a moped. Then there were the stories I was told by a number of solo travellers along the way about how their friends they were travelling with had been so severely injured they were forced to return to home.
I decided to ride pillion.
After happening upon a brochure for a Hue>Hoi An motorbike tour that pretty much just said “JEREMY CLARKSON” on the front, I knew I had found the trip for me.
The next morning my guide for the day – the wonderful Dang (book trips with him here through Facebook, I couldn’t recommend him more) – showed up at my hotel, strapped my giant red backpack on his bike, and we set off to Hoi An, via plenty of incredible scenery. Luckily there were no sightings of Jeremy Clarkson and his cronies on the journey. I feel like that would have kind of killed the vibe.
Our first stop was a picturesque fishing village, set aside a glassy lake dotted with fishing boats. Standing on the shore, which was lined with well-used nets woven by the women of the village, you could see a panorama of jagged grey mountains, topped by a band of thin clouds. It was a stunning spectacle, but I was told that fisherman and their families live a difficult life due to a lack of education and money. While education is largely widespread in Vietnam – with a vast majority of the country’s young people now completing degrees – this is one section of society that is trapped in poverty.
We motored on to Elephant Waterfalls, where to avoid the large number of tourists splashing around in the main section, Dang took me on a walk through the forest, and we emerged at a deserted freshwater pool at the top of the falls. As I dived into the turquoise water for what would be the best swim of my life, Dang sat on some decking, which looked like it had been cobbled together by locals decades before. When I asked if he wanted to swim too, he told me that most people in the country are not taught to swim, and then I tried to explain the concept of content marketing to him. It was quite the cultural exchange.
We stopped in a cafe for lunch, where I enjoyed a plate of noodles, veggies and tofu obvs. Dang explained that it would be relatively easy for me to find vegetarian food in Vietnam, as Buddhist monks swear off meat. Aside from that, however, you don’t find many vegetarians in the country – not eating meat is seen as a task that takes superhuman willpower and the idea of it being an ethical issue is laughable to most.
Before I knew it we were winding our way up the Hai Van Pass with its beautiful scenery – a rite of passage for any traveller in Vietnam. After zooming past a group of clearly insane people cycling up the steep hills for charity, we stopped at the top to survey the breathtaking view from a former military outpost and sat down for some drinks at a cafe-cum-jewellery store on the roadside. As Dang chatted to a German woman and her daughter, who he’d done the same trip with a couple of days before, the lady who had served us drinks told me how young-looking and beautiful I was, before – as I had predicted – launching into a slick jewellery sales pitch.
And then it was down to Da Nang, crossing the city’s landmark dragon bridge, and up in a glass lift to explore the famous Marble Mountains. Atop these unique mountains were a host of pagodas and Buddha statues set amid trickling fountains and lush foliage. But it’s the caves there that really capture the imagination of visitors. A few years before, I’d actually visited the temples in Cambodia’s Siem Reap where Tomb Raider was filmed, but these caves looked even more like something out of Tomb Raider than its actual set. With no directions, I wandered around, getting increasingly lost as Buddhist monks passed me by, before deciding it was probably time to get out of there.
Dang dropped me off at my budget Hoi An hostel, and I tipped him handsomely for what had been one of my favourite days on my trip.
Hoi An: Lanterns, tailoring and brows on fleek
Hoi An is a marvellous city on the coast that has become a much-hyped highlight among travellers, who delight in its quaint old town, world-class dressmakers, and the opportunity to watch as brightly-coloured lanterns bob their way down the river each night.
I had initially aimed to stay in Hoi An for two or three nights, but after hopping on one of my hostel’s free bikes for a leisurely cycle around, I decided to extend my time there for a relaxing week, which I spent drinking Bia Saigons on the beach, perilously cycling through the packed tourist area and relaxing in the old town each night, people-watching.
The one thing you’re told you MUST DO in Hoi An is get an outfit tailored. While there are plenty of opportunities to do so all around Asia (“sexy dress for you ma’am, cheap as chips”), Hoi An is famed for its dressmakers, and tailoring shops line the streets, selling everything from trendy playsuits and sundresses to prom dresses and suits. I got a lilac dress made from chiffon and silk for an upcoming wedding, and after taking my measurements around 10am, the lady told me I could come to pick it up in around five hours. This might sound obvious given that all my clothes are off the rack from H&M and Urban Outfitters, but it is the best-fitting dress I own.
The hostel pool and bar was open around the clock, which was a godsend after hours cycling around in the balmy weather, and I took to going for tipsy swims in the moonlight after returning to the hostel drunk from copious glasses of Da Lat white in the old town.
My penchant for this (frankly disgusting) wine took a turn for the dangerous one night, however, when after a day sat writing in a bar, I tried to stand up while holding my laptop and took a very embarrassing and painful tumble backwards down the stairs of the restaurant. A table of South Korean people nearby came to my rescue, while the Chinese people on the adjacent table literally laughed and pointed. Tbh I was too drunk to care.
One night, returning home for a swim, I was joined in the pool by two European men (best guess German) and their Thai brides, who they were taking on an extended honeymoon around Asia. On this particular night they were trying to teach them to swim, and it definitely looked like it was their first time attempting such a feat. After doing a few laps of the pool the astounded women came over to me to compliment me on my – apparently very fast – swimming, and then I gave them some swimming tips and we all did some races which I obviously won. It was an odd evening to be sure.
A traditional island and ‘untraditional’ ideas
Another day I decided to take a cycling trip around a nearby village an hour’s boat trip up the Thu Bon River, which was one of the most interesting and educational tours I went on. The guide was a Vietnamese woman around my age, who did a fantastic job of showing us the traditional houses, weaving trade, mother of pearl crafts and basket-boats that went on on the island. The basket boats were particularly interesting as the theory goes that Vietnamese people started building them to look like giant baskets in a bid to avoid the expensive French boat tax. We also got to ride across the most terrifying, rickety bridge I have ever seen in my life. So dangerous is this bridge, that it is replaced by locals every two years as it gradually gets washed down the river. It was fun.
As we were cycling around she asked me about my life (are you married? what do you work as? what do your parents work as? do you have siblings? what do they work as?), and told me that – to her dismay – her mother kept trying to marry her off, and was becoming increasingly concerned that she was picking up ‘untraditional ideas’ by working with tourists. She then expressed jokey disappointment that I didn’t know of any eligible young men I could introduce her to.
This village was also where I learned about some of the Vietnamese traditions surrounding ancestors, and the respect paid to them. In the country’s more traditional homes, you will find an alter with tributes to the family’s ancestors, who – despite the small detail of being dead – are consulted on important decisions. Sometimes families will ask them questions – from who to marry to what to name children – via a spiritual coin toss. Other interesting facts include that Vietnamese people sleep on mats on the floor, as it’s too hot to lay in a bed surrounded by fabric, and that there are three doors at the front of properties: one for the men, one for the women and one for the spirits.
Vietnamese customer service
In Hoi An, I also had a day that summed up my experience in Vietnam perhaps more than anything else. After a hostel breakfast, I cycled into town in a bid to find a new battery for my faltering camera. I knew, cycling past all the shops people run from the front of their properties that this was a long shot, but then to my surprise I saw a “cameras” sign. Entering the tiny shop situated in someone’s living room, I sat down and waited for about 15 minutes for a shopkeeper to show up. When a woman wearing a pink velour ‘Apple’ tracksuit (who knew they’d branched out into apparel?) appeared I asked her about the camera battery, and she went into the back and returned with a tatty shoebox full of camera parts of all shapes and sizes.
After establishing that none would fit my Panoramic Lumix, she made me a coffee and told me to wait, and then hopped on her moped and off she went with my camera battery. About 40 minutes later, she returned with a brand new battery for camera – which is something I’d not been able to find in the cosmopolitan cities of Bangkok or Hanoi. She then demanded around £30, which I was happy to pay, and suddenly – detecting that I was happy to pay it – detained me and demanded an extra £20 for her trouble. I wasn’t in the mood to argue and so I just paid up and left, no doubt leaving her regretting she’d not shot for a higher price.
I then decided to go for a cooling Coca Cola Light in a nearby cafe. As I poured my drink, a local woman on a bicycle braked hard in front of my table and accosted my face with her hands, all the while shouting “eyebrows! oh no!”.
“I know they’re bad,” I told her, having not had my brows threaded since leaving the UK.
She sat down next to me, and, as I sipped my drink, convinced me that she was a professional eyebrow threader. It was somewhere between her putting me on the back of her bicycle, over the wheel, and being forced to lie down on someone’s bed as four old women demanded they thread every hair on my body that I regretted being convinced. The ‘threading’ was extremely painful, and would better have been described as eyebrow plucking – but with cotton. To put this into context, my usual salon in Leeds charges me £10 for the pleasure of having the hair ripped from my eyebrows – she tried to charge me about £25. Which – due to my stupid English politeness – I paid.
It was around this time that I decided to extend my visa in Vietnam for an extra month so I could spend a total of seven weeks there. Despite having to go through an expensive and protracted week-long process in Bangkok to attain this visa in the first place, all I had to do for an extra month was hand over my passport and £40 to the hostel receptionist and pick it up the next day. Vietnam was turning out to be quite the experience already, and I still had a lot planned for my time there, from a beach retreat in Qui Nhon for my birthday and hiking in Da Lat’s cooling pine forests, to a excursion to the balmy Mekong Delta – and, trust me, I was about to discover a lot more in between!