Saigon to Sa Pa and Everywhere in Between.
I went to Vietnam because when I was in Cambodia, that's what people told me I should do. I didn't know what was there or what I would do but this is the beauty of travel. You don't need a plan.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
I took a bus from Pnomh Penh to HCMC. I had a hotel booked but I had no idea where it was. Neither did anyone at the bus station. Within seconds of getting off the bus, I was being offered sunglasses, cigarette lighters and penknives. Was it not obvious I had just arrived and was not really in the frame of mind for a spot of shopping!
Still, this is what I love about these cities. So busy, so intense, so alive, so in your face! I started walking and eventually found a tourist information office who were able to help.
I got to my hotel, checked in and set off exploring. I didn't have a plan, I didn't know how long to stay in Saigon or what to do. How exciting!
During the evening, I had visited a tour guide office to see what my options were. I was talked into buying a Vietnam bus pass. This would allow me to travel from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. I could stop wherever I wanted to and all I would have to do is make a reservation with the bus company each day I wanted to travel. It seemed very much like the inter-railing deal I had back in Europe. For about £30 you could buy a ticket that would enable you to stop in Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi.
I had also booked a day trip tour to the Mekong River where, I didn't know it yet, but I would meet a travel companion, I had a puppet show ticket and a ticket to the War Remnants Museum. I was pretty set. In between doing/ seeing all of these things, I was going to wander the city and see what I could discover.
On the Mekong trip, we took kayaks down the river and stopped at a traditional village where they made coconut candies. We were able to watch the process and to taste the delicacies. I didn't like the durian one! I met Sean on this trip. For the next three weeks, we would be chasing each other through the country, meeting up in each place where we were both staying, purely accidentally! We had a good laugh and even won a Tiger beer competition! Back to the Mekong trip, there are many different versions of the same trip, all for relatively the same price. Look around until you find one that you particularly like the sound of.
Beginning My Bus Journey
My bus was leaving for Mui Ne in the evening. At this point, I think I'm on the bus for Da Lat until the next morning. When I'm rudely awoken at 11pm being told to get off the bus, I'm very confused. Mui Ne is basically a road with a few hotels and a beach. I get off the bus and go to a hotel, the owner is sitting outside smoking and is more than happy to provide a room for me. I book two nights because if there is a beach literally across the road then I will spend a few days sunbathing. Mui Ne doesn't have a great deal to offer so if you're looking for somewhere to relax away from the real world, this is your spot!
On to Da Lat
I arrived in Da Lat after a pretty horrendous bus journey. We had picked up so many people along the way that bodies were crammed into the aisles like you wouldn't believe. There were even people on the roof! It was noisy and it was hot. It wasn't fun. Nonetheless, De Lat was an exciting place. Set in the mountains, a little colder than the other places I had been so far on this trip.
This is where I discovered Easy Riders. Motorbike drivers who do tours. They would have taken me from Da Lat all the way to Hanoi. A trip I would have loved to have done if it weren't for the fact that I already had a bus ticket, and these were the days where I was very cautious with money!
I decided to take a trip with the Easy Rider, whose name escapes me. I told him to take more somewhere he hasn't taken a tourist before. Off we went and had an amazing day of sightseeing.
My hotel was perfectly pleasant if you want to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It's about a ten-fifteen minute walk to the centre. I would have preferred being closer as after a night in a bar, I had to get a taxi, who didn't know the way and ended up dropping me in some ghetto. I was definitely afraid and actually ran through the streets until I found another taxi. I think I paid him triple what the meter said as I was so relieved that he got me to my hotel. The owners also went to bed and locked everything up quite early. Therefore, getting in in the early hours was difficult. You had to ring the bell and wait for them to wake up!
Next Stop, Nha Trang
You may have already noticed that I'm OK with being a solo traveller. I enjoy getting out there, meeting people and seeing new things. It just so happens that on the bus to Nha Trang I had made two new friends. Alfonso and Ben, Spanish and American repsectively. They had also just met and we were discussing Nha Trang. It seemed that it was a very busy holiday weekend and when they had each tried to book somewhere to stay, everywhere was fully booked. I said that I had the same problem and that I had ended up booking a two-bedroom apartment! We decided that we would all stay in the apartment and Ben, having run out of money and just trying to get to Hanoi for the airport so he could go home, would stay for free and Alfonso would give me some money.
We arrived at the apartment to find that actually it didn't exist. It may have existed at one time but it most certainly didn't exist now. Then there were three people with no accommodation! We walked towards the beach enquiring at every hotel and finally after a good couple of hours, we had a beachfront room. Ben wouldn't be able to stay as there weren't enough beds so he went off to the bus station. I hope he made it back to the States!
Alfonso and I went off exploring, took a swim in the sea and learnt something very interesting. Nha Trang is like mini Russia! Everyone was a Russian tourist, menus were in Russian, people spoke to me in Russian. It was so strange!
Somewhere between being on the beach and crossing the road into a restuarant for some dinner, my bank card had disappeared. All I had on me was about 3 million Dong- the equivalent of around £100. I also had a credit card hidden in my backpack but I really didn't want to use that. I contacted my bank and arranged a replacement card to be sent. Then I contacted Wolvo who was coming to meet me in Thailand in about three weeks and she would bring me my new card. Problem solved! Now it was time to go out partying on the beach!
The next morning, Alfonso had left before I was awake. Goodbye new friend! I set out to the main road to find another Easy Rider who I could ask "Take me somewhere you've never taken tourists before." Of course, he could make it up and take me where everyone goes and I would never know but still, I like to think I saw some unique sights.
Passport Drama in Hoi An
Hoi An may well be my favourite place on this trip. It may even be able to stretch into the category of favourite place ever... I'm not sure yet! I had booked myself into a fairly nice hotel seeing as I was now paying for things on the credit card, it seemed only fitting that I treat myself. I had also acquired a new 'friend'. I say 'friend' because of reasons you will find out shortly. I can't remember her name- let's say, Sarah for ease.
I was waiting for my luggage once the bus had arrived in Hoi An and Sarah was standing looking a little worried. From the quick chat we had earlier in the night at a service station, she was an American who had finished studying in Thailand and was doing some travelling before returning home.
I asked her if she was OK and she said that she didn't have anywhere to stay and that she had heard everything was booked up. I told her that I could save the day as I had booked a double room which came with two double beds. For a small fee, she could stay with me. This meant that I could still stay in my little bit of luxury but I would no longer be paying more than I wanted to. I was on a role with this accommodation sharing thing!
Anyway, we go to the hotel and Sarah is in awe. She doesn't leave the hotel for the next two days. I'm not sure how long she's been travelling but she loves the bed, loves the pool and loves the shower. I will leave her to it!
As for me, I hire a bicycle from reception and off I go exploring. The town was very quaint with a little river and restaurants dotted around. Particularly pretty at night when it was all lit up.
Hoi An is famously renowned for its tailors. You can choose a piece of fabric, get measured and have a professionally tailored suit or piece of clothing made. Unfortunately, I didn't have the budget for this. I will be going back as I think everyone should own a unique piece of Hoi An tailored clothing!
I cycled down to the beach and spent two days reading, writing and watching the waves crash. On the second day, my bike had been removed as I had apparently left it in a 'no parking' zone... I managed to barter and get it back!
On check out day, I was leaving the hotel first as I had a bus to catch. I packed my things, said goodbye to Sarah and cleared my debts with the front desk. I took a motorbike taxi over to the bus station to find the bus was delayed by an hour. Some people would get cross, I however, breathed a sigh of relief as it was at that moment I remembered my passport was with the front desk at the hotel! I found a motorcycle taxi and zoomed back to the hotel. I ran in and they immediately knew why I was there. Now, this is the part where Sarah went from friend to 'friend'. As you're reading this, take a moment to put yourself in Sarah's shoes and really ask yourself, would you do what she did?
The front desk staff informed me that Sarah had taken my passport IN THE HOPE OF BUMPING INTO ME IN THE NEXT CITY. I was mad, confused and totally worried. I had left my luggage at the bus station and my passport was now somewhere in Hoi An. I ran back outside to my driver and had no idea where to go so we went to the nearest cafe to the hotel. I ran inside, nothing. We went down another street, I was running into all the cafes. I knew her bus wasn't until the afternoon so my gut told me she'd be in a cafe? The third street... I ran into a cafe and there she was. Headphones in and playing on the laptop. I went over (probably a little too rudely) and said "What are you thinking?! Why would you take my passport from the hotel?" She was taken by surprise but replied "I figured I would see you in Hue." Words failed me. Literally. I grabbed my passport and headed back to the bus station. It turns out my poor motorcycle taxi wasn't actually a taxi man, he had seen me looking stressed and given me a ride and now he was late to work due to our cafe tour of Hoi An! At least I had my passport!
On to Hue
I didn't particularly like Hue, I spent my first day walking around the city and seeing the famous citadel. The hotel had said there wasn't really much to do it Hue. After staying for just one night, I managed to find another Easy Rider and said that I wanted to go where tourists haven't been and this time I would like to stay over somewhere for the night. It turns out, this was one of the best decisions I had ever made. I got to ride part of the route the bus had taken to get us here and I had the chance to take all of the photographs I couldn't whilst I was on the bus. I visited several waterfalls where there was a hilarious incident regarding the size of my chest but I'll get to that later! I also ate with several families, slept in a very traditional hotel, got caught in a monsoon and met some great people! I felt like a local by the end of the two days! I did so many things on this trip that it's easier to document with photographs than in writing so see the photos below to see what else I got up to.
The beginning of my tour.
Night away from tourists!
Handmade and traditional
I waited 20 minutes for this shot!
The End, or so I Thought
Just before I was due to travel to Hanoi, there was one final waterfall to visit. I got into the water and was immediately ambushed by several Vietnamese women. They clung to me like leaches amazed by the size of my chest. I never thought I would die by drowning but I definitely came close here. Of course, my guide was watching the whole ordeal and thought it was hilarious. I wish it was on video!
That said, it's off to Hanoi! I arrived early in the morning. The bus dropped me off right outside a hotel where I was able to get a room for two nights. I went straight out to explore the city and to see the sights. On returning to the hotel, I noticed they had a tour desk and I asked what I should do whilst in the area. They recommended two trips which would involve more travelling across Vietnam. I still had a week before I was due to be back in Thailand to meet Wolvo so I thought why not! The first trip was to the UNESCO site Halong Bay. My trip would involve two nights on board a boat sailing around the rock formations, kayaking, swimming in the sea and visting a cave. I signed up straight away and left the next morning. A minibus took me to the boat where I met the other people I would be on the boat with. Although the trip wasn't exactly what I had been sold, it was amazing. Halong Bay was spectacular and very well preserved. The boats all looked beautiful when lit up at night and both nights I was with a fun group of people. We jumped off the boat into the water, played cards and drank rice wine. There was even a cooking class where we learnt to make spring rolls.
Off to Sa Pa
When I arrived back at the hotel in Hanoi, I was advised to go on another trip to Sapa. This is a famous mountain area of Vietnam where it's popular to do treks and to see a community dressed in traditional colourful clothing. There were also different markets to visit. I looked at some photographs and decided I would go. It involved taking another overnight bus but I was promised it would be worth it once I arrived.
Upon my arrival in Sapa I was approached by several Hmong ladies. These women dress in hand-dyed indigo clothing with colourful accessories. One lady, Zu was particularly enthusiastic to take me on a trek the next day. She wasn't pushy so I decided to go with her. I arranged to meet her at my hotel early the next morning.
As it was so early when I arrived at the hotel, I was offered a free breakfast by the staff. This is where I met the lovely Ian and Jane. They were an older couple who travel a different part of the world each year. I joined them for breakfast and we spent time chatting.
Later, I set off for Cat Cat village. This is a beautiful spot with lovey views of the mountains and rice fields. What I didn't like was that any time you tried to take a photo people came and asked for money- even if I was taking a photograph of the scenery! I wandered along the paths fairly quickly as I didn't like the atmosphere of the place, even though the views were quite incredible.
Back in Sa Pa, I went to a bar for a beer when Ian and Jane came along. I invited them to sit with me and then they agreed that they would join me in the morning for my hike with Zu. I love meeting new people when I travel, regardless of age or nationality. Ian and Jane were from New Zealand and they were lovely to spend time with.
In the morning we set off and I only had flip flops on. I could have hired some hiking boots but at this time, my Vietnamese money was running low and I was conscious that my credit card had taken quite a beating recently. I wanted to be as frugal as possible until Wolvo reunited me with my debit card!
At the time of the hike, Zu was weeks away from giving birth yet she was quicker, fitter and far more able to conquer the ascent of the mountains. I was amazed at her!
We stopped at her family home high in the mountains for lunch. It was such an experience to be welcomed in and shown such wonderful hospitality. She really gave us such a wonderful day.
When we had begun our descent back to Sa Pa, we came across a mud patch as it had rained a few days ago. Of course, my flip flops got stuck and I ended up walking through the mud barefoot. Zu used her machette to cut a bamboo stick to help me balance. If I wasn't laughing so much I probably would have coped a lot better. I ended up caked in mud and hobbling along. If you're contemplating a hike in the Sa Pa mountains during monsoon season, do not do it in flip flops!
We returned to Sa Pa and went for a foot massage given that we had actually walked twelve miles that day! I had told Ian and Jane that it was only about two miles!
The next afternoon, I set off on the overnight bus to Hanoi before catching my flight back to Bangkok. This Vietnam trip was my favourite as there was such diversity across the country. Everyone was extremely friendly and I got to see and do some amazing things. If you're heading to South East Asia, make sure you plan for at least a couple of weeks in Vietnam.