Phong Nha and Hanoi: I crave the self-belief of a Vietnamese karaoke singer

Due to the demands of the Digital Nomad Life™, I started writing this blog in early February. It was more than five months ago that we first arrived in Hanoi, and even longer since we got to Phong Nha. But before you condemn my literary tardiness, bear in mind that the New Testament was written over the course of almost a century after the death of Christ, which actually makes the latest entry in our ongoing travel saga pretty damned timely. In your face, Jesus.

As you’ll no doubt remember from our last blog, our Central Vietnamese adventures had mostly been cold, damp, or both. We’d survived extreme flooding in Hoi An, and been forced to WEAR JEANS for the first time on our trip in Hue, yet had still spent a combined three weeks in the two cities. Venturing north, we hoped to find warmer – and, more importantly, drier – climes.

With Christmas less than two weeks away, we also felt it was high time to sate our thirst for adventure before heading on to Hanoi. While less popular than Saigon, Vietnam’s capital and second-largest city attracts almost five million visitors a year, so it’s hardly unexplored.

It’s not all that easy to get “off the beaten track” in Vietnam, owing largely to the country’s physical shape. The northern and southern tips are pretty expansive, but the adjoining central zone is long and slender, measuring just 30 miles across at its narrowest point. One of our guides claimed it looks like “the perfect woman’s body”; I assume he meant that the North is an ample bosom (rather than a bulbous head), and the South a shapely badonkadonk.

Basically, Vietnam is thicc. Chonk. Oh Lawd, Vietnam comin’.

Be still, my beating heart

All of the central towns and cities hug the coast, so the well-trodden path is often the only path. But in Phong Nha, a tiny rural town at the gateway to the vast, UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, we hoped we’d found an opportunity to take the famed “road less travelled”.

Phong Nha

The road to Phong Nha may be metaphorically less travelled, but physically it’s anything but. Much of the journey is via the busy Ho Chi Minh Highway, a 750-mile road that spans almost half the length of the country, largely tracing the route of the famous Ho Chi Minh trail supply line of “Vietnam War” fame.

Caroline and I are naturally smug people, but boarding the bus toward Phong Nha had us feeling especially self-satisfied. Everyone else on the bus was doing a hellish day trip to the national park, involving an eight-hour journey there and back; we were the only ones enlightened – and bold – enough to actually stay in the park. Bulky and misshapen though they may have been, our backpacks were evidence of our all-important travel credentials, and we wore them like a badge of honour. Obviously I then twatted my head on the luggage rack while taking my seat, but I could tell my fellow passengers were still deeply in awe of us.

The journey north proved to be one of our more visually stimulating bus rides. Three hours outside Hue, the highway bisects a landscape suddenly transformed from lush rice paddies and gently meandering rivers, to an arid desertscape of rolling sand dunes, some up to 100 metres tall. We were more than a mile from the coast and hadn’t caught a glimpse of the sea since leaving Hoi An, 200 miles to the south, which made the presence of these towering dunes a little disconcerting.

Leaving aside our sudden and unexpected desert immersion, the journey to Phong Nha was – as with every bus ride in Southeast Asia – long and relatively dull. Vietnam is by no means the worst offender here, but without fail, land-based transport in this part of the world takes a bafflingly long time given the distances you actually cover. Hue and Phong Nha are only 130 miles apart, but the trip takes five hours, at a blistering average speed of 26 mph.

On the plus side, these consistently slow, internet-free travel experiences are a fantastic opportunity for self-reflection. When it comes to switching off and zoning out, there’s really no better solution than putting your life in the hands of a manic, constantly honking Asian bus driver for an undisclosed length of time.

At this point, you might reasonably be questioning my decision to reel off nine lengthy paragraphs before even beginning to discuss the subject mentioned in the title. Let me inform you that this is actually our equivalent of a paywall. We don’t ask you to spend any money to savour our #content, but you’re damn well going to trawl through 700 turgid words of introspection and emotionless logistical detail before we even think about cutting to the point.

Which brings us to the “A” material: Phong Nha and Hanoi.

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Let me see that Phong

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First up is Phong Nha, a largely ugly town parachuted into glorious surrounds. A dozen or so identikit bars and restaurants, mostly housed under corrugated iron roofs, line the dusty main street. It feels like it’s been thrown together in a hurry to cater for an influx of tourists that hasn’t quite arrived yet. But its aesthetic shortfalls can be easily forgiven, because the surrounding landscape is obscenely lovely. Imposing limestone karsts thick with tropical evergreens jut shockingly in every direction; as if Ha Long Bay had been picked up, dried off and deposited 15 miles inland. Adjacent to the high street runs the slow-moving Sông Côn river, dotted with gently chugging long-tail boats. It’s the most beautiful backdrop we’d clapped our world-weary eyes upon since the blissful south coast of Cambodia.

People come to Phong Nha for one reason – to explore the caves of the nearby national park. One of them, Sơn Đoòng, is literally the largest cave in the whole world. Unfortunately, only one company is permitted to run tours of the frankly ridiculous three-mile long, 200-metre tall chasm; the package involves three nights of subterranean camping and costs an absurd £2,300 per person – almost double what the average Vietnamese worker earns in a year.

In other words, it was fractionally out of our price range. Sơn Đoòng is the Harrods of caves, whereas we were looking for more of a B&M Bargains-level experience. We wanted the Liam Payne to Sơn Đoòng’s Harry Styles; the Paddy McGuinness to its Peter Kay; the Mrs Brown’s Boys to its Father Ted.

To an extent, we found it. But if you’ll excuse the hyperbole, I honestly believe it was better than Liam Payne, Paddy McGuinness and Mrs Brown’s Boys put together.

Thiên Đường (Paradise) Cave is 72 metres tall and 150 metres wide at its greatest extent, but mere measurements don’t even begin to do it justice. Well-travelled as I am, I’m still yet to leave the confines of Earth’s atmosphere, but visiting Thiên Đường feels like an almost otherworldly experience. The subterranean landscape, with its hulking stalactite formations, looks as if it’s been cut straight from a Star Trek scene, albeit without the distraction of Kirk or Ryker frenziedly rutting with a four-breasted space prostitute.

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Baby, that Phong

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Descending into the bowels of the earth was, sadly, not an exercise we could perform solo. Even getting to the national park under our own steam would have been impossible; we refused to hire scooters – about 23 people a day die on Vietnam’s roads – and the prospect of pedalling a bike up the park’s terrifyingly steep inclines made my thighs clench in horror. There was no option but to book a tour.

Generally, I hate tours. Being herded around in a clunky minibus, stopping only at the random intervals when your guide fancies a break, and being stuck with a group of fellow tourists constantly asking each other “Where have you been? Where are you going next?” for hours on end is not my idea of a day well spent.

However, this particular tour was different. As a group, we developed a unique camaraderie borne out of the repetitive and deeply invasive banter of our guide, who just happened to sound very much like a Vietnamese Mr. Bean. That isn’t particularly relevant – he wasn’t wearing a tweed jacket, or performing lighthearted slapstick – but it’s a nice bit of context nonetheless.

Every time our tour group boarded the bus, essentially leaving ourselves at Vietnamese Mr. Bean’s mercy, he stood at the front and asked each of us in turn: “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” Same-sex or non-binary relationships were not an option, much to the dismay of a lesbian couple in our group. Having successfully identified the couples, he attempted to pair off the singletons with one another, before quizzing those in relationships about how many children they were intending to spawn, and when exactly they were planning to start. Presumably he has a really detailed Google Calendar to maintain.

Then things got even more personal. At one point he posed me a question I have honestly never been asked before: “How long have you been in love?” I really wasn’t prepared for it, but sadly there was no chance of disarming this man with humour – he was simply far too earnest. There was nothing for it but to confront every British person’s worst nightmare – openly and honestly discussing my feelings with a strange man, while sat on a crowded bus. Had buses existed in 14th-century Italy, I have little doubt that Dante’s Inferno would have incorporated just such a scene.

Having mercifully ditched The Feelings Enquirer and joined a different group for the afternoon, it was time for the second part of our buy-one-get-one-free cave-touring experience.

Next up was Phong Nha Cave, which is every bit as spectacular as Paradise Cave, if a little less romantically named. Only accessible by boat, it begins at an unpromising, low-ceilinged entrance, before opening up into a vast floodlit world of limestone stalactites. It’s like a really metal version of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World. Tourists are only able to visit the first 600 metres or so of the cave – presumably because the Bilderberg Group and / or Saucer People are secretly running the world from further within its murky depths – but the tour route also allows you to take a stroll along a bizarre underground beach. This may not be my finest piece of descriptive writing, but I can really only describe the trip as “a bit mad”.

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You can tell everybody, this is your Phong 🤩

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But our visit to Phong Nha wasn’t just about skulking around the subterranea. We also had the unwelcome opportunity to experience a Vietnamese wedding, which was taking place in the building next to our homestay. Actually, that’s misleading. It was centred around the building next to our homestay, but it actually took up much of the street. At any given moment, a new group of guests would pull up on scooters. It seemed like the whole town was invited (which, to be fair, they may well have been – the population of Phong Nha is only about 1,000).

Whereas British weddings mostly involve being photographed in a succession of different function rooms, the action in Phong Nha largely revolved around a neverending karaoke session. Vietnamese people love karaoke, and with the misguided self-belief of a poorly qualified white man at a job interview, they are genuinely convinced that they’re brilliant at it. They are not. If high-ranking US military officials ever found themselves at a Vietnamese karaoke night – admittedly unlikely given the historic animosity between the two nations – they would immediately take steps to weaponise the startling sonic emissions.

With our eardrums shredded and a desire to be out of the sticks in time for Christmas, we felt it was high time to get on our way. Hanoi lay in wait – but first we would have to endure my first ever night bus journey.

Hanoi

We had fiercely avoided night buses up to this point. The advantages are obvious – you save a night’s accommodation and, theoretically, wake up refreshed in your new destination the next morning – but Caroline’s cautionary tales of overnight buses in Vietnam had left me utterly convinced that they weren’t for me.

Unfortunately, we had little choice but to break my night bus duck in Phong Nha. Our only other option was an extremely circuitous and far more expensive taxi-bus-train combo. On balance, it sounded even worse. We bit the bullet and bought tickets for the 11-hour bus trip.

I am naturally a figure of serenity, remaining placid when all around me is fraught. But I can categorically say that 30 minutes into our overnight journey, death had never seemed so close, nor so appealing.

Our “seats” at the back of the bus were, in reality, a tiny and poorly cushioned bed positioned half a metre below the roof. We had to share it with a Spanish woman who, although very pleasant in her own right, was far far too close to us. We could neither sit up nor see out of a window. Coupled with the uncomfortable warmth – Asian buses are always either much too hot or much too cold – and the bumpy, zigzagging road, it was the perfect recipe for travel sickness. Of course, I knew that I couldn’t be sick – it was far too difficult to move from my wedged-in position on the “bed”, and social norms prevented me from spilling my guts in public. My only option was attempting to leave my body (or, as Caroline puts it, holding my head in my hands and repeatedly muttering “I can’t do this”).

But against all the odds, a) I didn’t die and b) we arrived in the capital well ahead of schedule, despite leaving two hours late. It was 6am, far too early to check in to our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, so despite not having slept for the best part of a day, we had little choice but to roam the streets for the next six hours.

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I don’t know what I was expecting, but the whole experience was pretty mad. The train is huge compared to the tiny street (and to you), and it didn’t particularly slow down. I’ve never noticed the physicality of a train in this way before. As you can see I wimped out and stood on the less scary side. 🚂 . . . #train #ngơ224lêduẩn #hanoi #seasia #southeastasia #vietnam #backpacking #travelblog #travelbug #travelwriter #travelgram #instatravel #lovetraveling #lovetotravel #travelphotography #travelpics #instagood #instago #wanderlust #bucketlist #travelbloggers #seetheworld #roamtheplanet #passportready #tickettoride #goexplore #explore #exploreeverything

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It proved a surreal exercise. Dawn, it transpires, is the time when the great and good of Hanoi descend on Hoan Kiem Lake to work out. Their fitness regimes, if you can describe them as such, are baffling. Rather than just going for a nice jog, Hanoians prefer to gather in groups of half-a-dozen or so and enjoy a spot of communal tai chi. Each group is led by someone – generally either a flamboyant man with the air of a QVC presenter, or an elderly shell suit-clad woman – who barks out instructions, accompanied by piercing Vietnamese versions of Western music staples. Given the timing of our visit, one of these groups was soundtracked by nothing but multiple covers of Jingle Bells. We looked on, transfixed. If we hadn’t already been sleep-deprived, we would certainly have felt sleep-deprived after watching it.

Eventually, sleep did come. Waking up renewed the following day, we were able to explore the city in all its glory, without fear of hallucinating through sheer exhaustion.

The Vietnamese capital and former hub of Ho Chi Minh’s northern uprising, Hanoi was instantly better than I expected. I hadn’t heard a lot of positives about this city of almost eight million people; common themes were that there’s not much to see, that the people are ruder – or at least more abrupt – than their southern Vietnamese counterparts, and that it was best treated as a jumping-off point for Ha Long Bay or the mountainous wilderness of the far north, rather than as a destination in its own right.

Utter bollocks. The Old Quarter is genuinely one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited. Dating back more than 1,000 years, this tightly knit warren is characterised by its 36 “guild streets”, each of which is dedicated to a specific craft or product. Our hotel was located on Thuốc Bắc, which specialises in Chinese traditional medicines and – for some reason – various industrial flooring solutions. Other guild streets include Hàng Tre, which sells bamboo products, and Hàng Đồng, where you can buy all the copper wares you need. Even if you’re not in the market for 10 square metres of carpet tiling or a giant metallic pot, the whole area is great for a wander.

By this point, we had been in Vietnam for just shy of six weeks. Including her previous Southeast Asian tour, Caroline had now racked up almost three months – or almost 1% of her life – in this gloriously maddening country. We felt that we’d picked up a pretty good understanding of how things worked. Perhaps it was past experience that prompted us to be so sceptical on our visit to one of Hanoi’s most famous attractions.

Hoa Lo Prison was originally used by French colonialists to lock up troublesome Vietnamese patriots and intellectuals. During the conflict with America and the fascist dictatorship of the south, the North Vietnamese regime decided it would be a good place to stash US prisoners of war, including future US senator and current deceased Trump irritator John McCain. The American airmen who were imprisoned there dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton – an ironic moniker inspired by the miserable conditions, terrible food and severe torture that were a daily fact of life at the prison.

But if your knowledge of Hoa Lo extended only as far as what you learned by visiting the present day museum, you’d assume that the nickname was essentially a five-star Tripadvisor review.

According to the museum’s narrative, the US PoWs loved their time at Hoa Lo; they got to play pool, shoot hoops in the yard and watch films. It was basically like being on an all-inclusive holiday with the lads! So hospitable were their North Vietnamese hosts that the prison even had a defined “present-giving area”, where prisoners were supposedly showered with affectionate mementos and keepsakes. I’m surprised the inmates weren’t picturing wearing matching “Hanoi 1968 – Shaggers On Tour” polo shirts.

Needless to say, all that heartless propaganda and talk of torture had left us feeling festive. Vietnam is an odd place to spend the “holiday season”; Vietnamese people are culturally aware that Christmas is a “thing”, but don’t actually celebrate it. December 25th isn’t a holiday in Vietnam (unsurprising, given that the country is overwhelmingly made up of people who are either non-religious or follow traditional folk religions), but the Vietnamese do seem to get a kick from dressing up in novelty Santa hats.

Despite the slightly weird setting, we felt prepared to celebrate our first Christmas abroad. As regular followers of our content will know, we had taken the time earlier in the trip to buy each other presents. All that remained was to find a reliable supply of sparkling wine with which to celebrate the big day. Fortunately, the one shop on our street that didn’t sell traditional Chinese medicines happened to be an off-licence that was well-stocked with the finest Bulgarian fizz money can buy. It cost about £7 a bottle – an unheard-of fee for alcoholic drinks in Vietnam – but was worth every penny once we got over the initial acidic kick.

Obviously we got hammered at Christmas, and with Craig Crowther – the hottest new talent in Chinese Communist broadcast media – coming to visit for New Year’s Eve, we spent the following week in an alcoholic stupor. It’s easily done in Hanoi; the Old Quarter has some excellent bars, as well as some terrible but spectacularly cheap bars flogging local lager for 20p a glass.

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Hanoi-t on the town

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Tourists gather, beers in hand, on Ngo 224 Le Duan ahead of the arrival of the train, which barrels down the alley a couple of times a day. Five minutes before its scheduled arrival, the cafe staff collect the chairs and make sure everyone is stood with their backs to the wall. Standing on the right side is super tight and not for the faint of heart! 🚂 . . . . #train #railway #hanoi #vietnam #seasia #southeastasia #travel #travelling #traveller #travelgram #instatravel #travelbug #travelblog #travelbloggers #travelpics #travelphotographer #seetheworld #lovetotravel #instagood #instago #goexplore #roamtheplanet #explore #exploreeverything #backpacking #tickettoride #passportready #traveldiaries

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All that booze was our best defence against the freezing conditions. Despite allegedly having an average temperature of 22 C in December, Hanoi was extremely cold, and the Airbnb in which we were staying had no glass in the windows. We were perpetually chilly and took to wearing two jumpers and two jackets at a time; it seemed a long time since we had been sweating profusely in tropical Ho Chi Minh City or sunning ourselves on the beach at Bai Xep.

But due to the wonderful vagaries of the Southeast Asian climate, our next stop – the ancient city of Luang Prabang, across the border in Laos – was drenched in glorious sunshine and with temperatures rarely dropping below the mid-20s, despite being almost exactly as far north as Hanoi.

As you’ll find out in our next entry – probably in several months’ time – the weather conditions weren’t the only thing that made Laos feel more hospitable than we’d become used to. Vietnam is jaw-droppingly beautiful, dirt cheap, and utterly fascinating to behold. But sweet mother of mercy it is hard work. The simplest transaction – buying a bag of crisps, or ordering a beer – frequently becomes a baffling ordeal involving multiple parties. People laugh in your face a lot. Scammers try to forcibly re-upholster your shoes then demand an exorbitant fee. It rained heavier – and for longer – than I ever thought possible.

To paraphrase the almighty Louis Theroux, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen, but I sensed it was time to leave.

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