Visiting Vietnam

I recently wrote about my experiences in Vietnam and how anxiety crept up on me. There were a lot of times I felt on edge and unable to relax, but other times Vietnam’s beauty amazed me and I would like to share that in this post.

Although I had a rather mixed opinion of Vietnam I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting. As mentioned in my previous post, when I researched Vietnam I found there to be a wide spectrum of opinions. Those who vowed never to return cited unaccommodating locals, being harshly treated and scammed as their primary reasons. What I experienced was on the contrary, the majority of locals I met were very warm and friendly, I received very good hospitality and hotel staff were very helpful and resourceful. I wasn’t subject to any scam and the taxis I used charged a fair price (I used Mai Linh taxis). Anxiety aside I felt very welcomed in the country.

The anxiety I felt was my own problem and something I took responsibility to deal with. It’s not something I would try to push on others and say “oh, don’t go to Vietnam”. Everyone is different and will experience a country in a completely unique way. Here are some of the areas of Vietnam I really enjoyed:

Trang An, Ninh Binh:

This is one of two areas near Ninh Binh that is known as the Ha Long Bay of the land. The other place is Tam Coc but according to reviews is busier than Trang An so I didn’t visit there.

Trang An is located within easy reach by motorbike and the drive is very scenic. It costs 5000d to park and 200000d entry and boat ride. If you are travelling solo you are asked to wait until a few more people arrive. I didn’t wait very long and was sharing the boat with two other travellers.

Our boat driver was a sturdy old lady who did an excellent job of manually manoeuvring the boat for 2 hours (with a little help from us). She didn’t speak English so, unfortunately, no further information was provided about the area. The dominating limestone karst peaks are dramatically beautiful and the reflections on the water is mesmerising. The boat ride took us through some small caves and stopped a couple of times so we could explore some temples. Some scenes from the movie Kong: Skull Island were also filmed in Trang An.

NB: I read reviews that in Tam Coc there is pressure to tip and buy water/snacks for the boat person (at inflated prices, then the items are given back to the “seller”). This was another reason I was put off going. I never experienced this at Trang An and even the refreshments after the boat trip were available at reasonable prices.

Van Long Nature Reserve, Ninh Binh:

Even quieter than Trang An is the Van Long Nature Reserve which is tranquil and serene. The Nature Reserve is about a 45 minute motorbike ride from Ninh Binh and easy to find with the help of Google Maps.

Here I took a 1 hour boat ride where there was just myself and the boat man. It was so lovely to sit and relax looking out at the beauty unfolding itself in front of me. The boat also went through a small cave and then looped back to where I’d started. The price for the boat trip was 80000d and no charge for parking the motorbike.

The scenery around the Nature Reserve is superb so I wasn’t in any rush to head back to Ninh Binh and drove around taking side roads and taking in more lush green beauty.

Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave, Phong Nha:

I reached Phong Nha after 1 week of being in Vietnam and, in hindsight, I regret not spending more time here. Phong Nha is a small one-road town where tourists come primarily to visit the caves in the area…and so they should, they’re incredible.

Phong Nha is pretty quiet and makes for some gentle cycling and walking. Walking past the guesthouses and past the only ATM, the town is much prettier and provides outstanding views of the river and a great spot to grab a cheap beer and chill.

Paradise Cave (or Thien Duong Cave) is simply a masterpiece and an absolute credit to what Mother Nature is capable of. This enormous palace-like cave is 31km long, 500 feet wide and 650 feet high, so if you want to feel very small this is the place to come. It was only discovered in 2005 by a local man who stumbled upon the entrance after hearing wind coming from inside. From 2005, British Cave explorers from British Cave Research Association explored the cave. This cave is the longest dry cave in Asia, however, those on a tour (or visiting on their own) will only have independent access to the first 1km. A longer trek of 7km can be arranged but it’s mandatory to have a guided tour.

Phong Nha cave is smaller but no less beautiful. The entrance of the cave is reached by boat along the Son river which is great for taking in the scenery. The boat then continues into the cave and loops back to the entrance with a chance to get out and take some snaps of the cave. The boat then takes you back to Phong Nha.

I did this trip as part of a tour as it worked out to be around the same as hiring a scooter and doing it myself. I paid $50.00 (£38.00) for an all day tour with Phong Nha Discovery and this included a brilliant guide who spoke very good English. This is the same price as on their website so my guesthouse didn’t charge extra for commission.

For those with money to spend, for $3000 you can book a 4 day/3 night trip to Son Doong Cave which is the biggest cave in the world and only accessible via the Ban Doong ethnic minority village.

Cuc Phuong National Park:

This is Vietnam’s largest national park.I came here later in the day which I regret as I would have liked to have spent longer exploring. It’s yet another beautiful drive from Ninh Binh to get here and takes about 1 hour.

As I had limited time I opted for the 7km hike which is relatively easy-going (there are parts where there are some never-ending steps) and you can visit a 1000 year-old tree. The trail itself was very peaceful and I only saw a handful of people, but that could have been because it was later in the day.

For a full day it’s possible to explore caves, a botanical garden and a primate rescue centre. There is also a turtle conservation center which is home to some of the most endangered turtles.

Multi-day treks can also be arranged and also cultural home-stays, but I believe a guide is mandatory for this.

TIP: Ensure you have a full petrol tank as the 7km walking trail is 20km from the entrance. On the way back I ran out of petrol but luckily some nice Australians helped me out.

Canyoning in Da Lat:

I was in Da Lat for a few days and decided to try canyoning which I’ve never done before. This was easy to arrange through my guesthouse and cost $45 for a ½ day. The price included transfers, a wet-suit, trainers if required, equipment, a good lunch (stuff to make several banh mi, biscuits and fresh fruit), drinking water and of course the instructor.

Before we got going the instructor went through a safety briefing and our small group was shown the techniques and body position for safely manoeuvring down the cliff. All of the equipment is brought in from Europe or America and the ropes were in very good condition.

There were two dry cliffs and one called the “washing machine” in addition to a free-fall jump 7 metres off a cliff into the river.

I was very nervous as I’d only ever done indoor rock-climbing and abseiling many, many years ago. When canyoning it’s important to lean back as though you are trying to sit down. Hanging off a cliff and doing this was very scary but something you get used to. The first cliff was 14m and the second cliff was 18m. After the each descent you drop into the river, although scary it was very exhilarating.

Before the wet cliff we were able to do a free-fall jump off a cliff into a pool of water below. You could choose 7m, 9m or 11m, I opted for 7m. Looking down I was completing shitting myself and I nearly backed out. After watching others do the jump successfully I was able to do it. Looking down the jump seems massive but once in the water it doesn’t seem so high up, so I went for it again (was still shit scared lol).

There was also a chance to be a kid again and slide down the water slides (really smooth rocks) which was really fun.

Then came the last cliff dubbed the “washing machine”. I abseiled down about 4m where I then hung, I was then instructed to ease myself down and finally let go. A washing machine is the best way to describe this descent and apart from nearly losing my sandal it was so much fun. I think I swallowed half of the river lol!

Hue:

I stayed for 4 days in Hue and enjoyed my time here as the city wasn’t too hectic. I really liked the beautiful Perfume River going through the city which reminded me of home.

There is a good amount to keep busy in Hue including visiting the tombs on the outskirts of the city, visiting the Imperial City, walking along the river and visiting the nearby beach.

Da Nang:

From Hoi An it’s easy to drive by scooter to Da Nang for a day trip. The beach was really beautiful and well-kept and from what I saw there were no annoying sellers on the beach. I found this beach to be much better than Nha Trang and would definitely look to spend more time here. When I visited there was quite a lot of construction taking place so it seems development here is on the rise.

Other attractions in and around Da Nang include the Marble Mountain, Da Nang Cathedral, Son Tra Peninsula and Cao Dai Temple. Of course, the Hai Van Pass was made famous by Top Gear. This is a mountainous 21km long route on the National Route 1A and a challenging drive between Hue and Da Nang.

My Son Sanctuary:

I visited My Son when I was in Hoi An and it was an easy drive by scooter. It was 150000 dong for entry which also included the 2km transfer to the site entrance.

Set in a beautiful jungle the ruined Hindu temples date back to between 4th – 13th century and were built by the kings of Champa. The temples were dedicated to Hindu divinities such as Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva.

There are 8 groups of temples within the complex, however, due to heavy bombing during the Vietnam war this has resulted in a lot of damage. The complex was also used as a military base by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war which contributed to further damage.

The complex also has a very detailed museum near the entrances and is well worth spending the time to read about the history.

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