Sunday, 11 October 2015

Vietnam - The North

After what seems like years in the making, our holiday in Vietnam was finally here. Sadly though, we were not sharing it with Jan and Ross as originally planned, but excited to be seeing a new country for the first time. With an early 6.30am departure we were off to our first stop of Hanoi in the north of the country. We were met at the airport by a representative from our hotel, and it was so good to be able to ignore the dozens of taxi drivers all calling out for our attention in what can only be described as organised chaos.

From the minute we walked in the doors of the Paradise Boutique Hotel, we were made to feel like family. The friendliness of the staff who just couldn't seem to do enough for us, recommending restaurants with fabulous local cuisine, taking us out for their famous egg coffee, directing us to the best shopping area - the service was truly amazing. We spent the next few days meandering up and down the various streets - silver street, silk street, paper street, flower street with shop after shop selling exactly the same thing. How they all make a living is beyond comprehension.

We spent a day visiting the Ho Chi Minh memorial, though 'he was away on holidays' (his remains are on tour) and not due back until November. We then took in the war museum which was very interesting to learn more about the Vietnam War. The city of Hanoi is set around Hoan Kiem Lake, an hours leisurely walk around taking in the peace and tranquility of the calm water and weeping willows on one side of you, the hectic pace of hundreds of motorcycles, bicycles and cars of the other side. The noise of honking, beeping vehicles and cries from vendors and the various sellers all vying for your attention blend together into a cacophony of noise that is truly deafening.

                      The Turtle Tower - the centre point of Hoen Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam


                No - you can't take him home!!                           Inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum


                        I did step too close and had the guards blowing whistles to move away 


                                                 Pete in the grounds of the Palace
Crossing the roads was always going to be a daunting experience. My rules for survival were - hang on tight to Pete, walk at consistent steady pace, hang on to Pete, don't make eye contact with the oncoming motorbikes, hang on to Pete, breath deeply and they DO GO AROUND YOU...and remember, hang on to Pete. Ho Chi Minh is apparently much busier and the roads more challenging. Can't wait !!!

Halong Bay was our next stop and so impressive. Even though we have sailed amongst islands like that in Thailand, this is just on a much larger scale. Our 1 night Grey line cruise was very good, lovely room and meals were fantastic. We had contemplated asking if we could extend our stay for 2 nights however, we were woken early the next morning and advised that we were to head straight back to the harbour as a typhoon was heading towards Halong Bay. We missed a morning of activities and a lunch, but that was all. No big deal really but they offered and refunded us some money for the inconvenience. 


                          Our Greyline cruise boat anchored in a calm setting for the afternoon 


                                           Dinner aboard, a 5 course meal of local cuisine

One more night back in Hanoi before our overnight sleeper train to Dong Hoi. That was not an experience I would ever wish to do again - hard mattresses, noisy travelling companions, a train that stopped and started with a sudden jerking motion, all in all an unpleasant trip with very little sleep. Arriving at 6.30am and thankfully met at the station by the farmstay staff, it was a quick 30mins transfer and we were enjoying breakfast in the midst of rice paddies, water buffalo and lots of Aussie accents. 

Phong Nha farmstay is run by an Australian guy and his Vietnamese wife so we found a good mix of eastern and western influence. Option of very good western food if you prefer, and the best pizzas ever (or maybe it is just that we were craving a change from spring rolls and wantons). Only place we came across stubbie coolers, and had to buy a couple for the rest of the trip - beers go warm very quickly in this heat. Mosquito nets over the 4 poster beds, very fast Wifi and Vegemite available for breakfast - nice to have some little extras sometimes. 

Using bicycles supplied by the farmstay, we cycled along dirt tracks that eventually became bitumen road (of sorts) then into Phong Nha and we rented a wooden boat for a trip to the nearby Phong Nha caves. This area is known for its cave and grotto systems and they are still being discovered today. Our little boat took us into one of the smaller but still impressive caves, and different to be seeing it from the river that meanders through the system for kilometres.


                        Water buffalo cooling off in the heat of the day not far from our farmstay

                                    The entrance of Phong Nha caves - a journey by boat

Day 2 we had booked a full day tour in the National Park, so boarding our mini bus after breakfast we were off. Making our way up through the jungle, our first main attraction was Paradise Caves, and if we had been impressed with our small cave yesterday, this one was breathtakingly amazing. Given its name by British explorers for the stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations, the entrance has the wow factor and the further into the cave you walk just gets better and better. A wooden boardwalk with steps and viewing platforms leads through the cave with each bend opening on to another stunning rock formation. Looking back at our photos, they don't do it justice but will always remind us of the beauty tucked inside the mountain.

                    The jungle terrain around the Phong Nha region - hot and humid conditions.

                                      The impressive entrance to the Paradise Caves

From there it was on to the Dark Cave where we first zip lined across the river, a distance of 300 meters and no more than 15 meters high. Then equipped with helmet and head lamp, we swam into the dark cave, then wadded through water making our way into the centre to wards the mud pool. The closer we got, the muddier the ground became. Our feet were sinking into thick squishy mud and the smooth clay walls started to close down on us. Suddenly it opened into a chamber of what I could only describe as a huge bath of thick liquid milk chocolate. It was an amazing experience to crawl into the thick of it, so buoyant that you couldn't put yourself under if you tried. As smooth as silk to the touch and who knows how deep. Then we all turned off our headlights and we were plunged into intense blackness in the bowels of this cave. Once the oohs and aahs stopped, the silence was eerie - quite an experience in itself. Lights back on and heading out, we got to swim back to the entrance and wash a good bulk of the mud away, though those with light coloured swimmers will probably never be the same colour again. By the time we emerge, the regular mid afternoon thunderstorm is underway and we kayak back to base in torrential warm rain. What a great day out!

                   Zip lining across the river to get to the Dark Cave, Phong Nha National Park


                            Headlamps on and starting our trek into the depths of the cave


                                   Anyone for a dunk in milk chocolate? The mud pool

Back on the train for a 3 hour 'soft seat' ride down to Hue in central Vietnam. A pretty city built on the Perfume River with lovely gardens and walkways alongside. Its major attraction is its vast 19th century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City, palaces and shrines. The streets here are not as busy, mostly motorcycles and bicycles with fewer cars than Hanoi. Very touristy with wall to wall bars offering ridiculously low 'happy hour' prices for alcohol. Saigon, Huda or Larue beer served very cold equates to 61cents per bottle and happy hour can run from 9.30am - 10.00pm.


                         Sun trying to break through. Bridge over the Perfume River, Hue.


                                                       The entrance to the Citadel


                                       Time to ring the bell at one of the temples, Hue

                          DMZ Bar for a drink. Loved the ceiling fan above the pool table.

    Reaching the half way mark of our holiday in Vietnam, tomorrow we head south to Hoi An. We are opting to forego our soft seat train tickets and instead getting a mini bus which will take in a little more sightseeing as we go. The weather is starting to close in a little, though it is to be expected as we are officially in the wet season. As we are heading back to the coast, it would be nice if we can chance some fine weather - just have to wait and see.

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