Escape to Vietnam

I’m rather embarrassed that it’s taken almost a year to write up my trip to Vietnam last New Year, but I’ve finally managed it, just in time before the next New Year!

It was a last minute decision. New Year engenders an expectation of doing something, of being somewhere, pulled between family and friends.  This time I didn’t have to choose – I took the easy, or long, way out – a British Airways flight to Hong Kong en-route to Vietnam. 

It was a spur of the moment thing  – I had no real set plan, just to do something different. New Year in Saigon was the only firm(ish) destination.  Booking a return flight to Hong Kong gave me a chance to meet up with a climbing pal who was over there visiting family over Xmas before heading to Vietnam. A single ticket from HK to Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City as it is now less romantically known, meant I would be in Vietnam for New Year, yet could be flexible on my journey plans..
Booking a flight only two days before Xmas left me with the last minute practicalities of immunisations and grabbing any last minute gear, but thankfully a local private health clinic sorted my injections and malaria tablets that morning.  My other challenge was to pack light. I didn’t want the hassle of waiting for hold baggage so I planned on hand-luggage only and settled on my trusty Osprey Mutant pack, being a generous 38 litres.  I figured I could skimp on clothes as I could always buy t-shirts/shorts over there and as I planned on staying in hostels/hotels I wouldn’t need a sleeping bag.  I also decided to forgo my Canon dSLR camera for my smaller Lumix LX5 – a decision I would later come to somewhat regret (I’ll discuss why in a separate post).
An early evening flight from Heathrow on the 29th Dec found me smiling to myself in expectation – I was on my way. Arriving in HK at lunchtime on the 30th I hopped on the train to Kowloon and headed straight for ChungKing Mansions, an auspicous block in downtown Kowloon that is infamous for its maze of backpackers guesthouses.  Joining a throng of fellow backpackers in the queue for the lift I was soon being shown to my abode for the evening.  The tiny room felt more like a prison cell with a metal bed taking up 90% of the floor space, adjoined by a tiny shower-room cum toilet.
After a quick shower I met up with Tom and we headed down to the harbour front. The Hong Kong skyline is justifiably one of the most famous in the world and at night takes on another dimension. Every skyscraper was adorned with illuminations to celebrate the coming new year.  After the laser light show we headed up to Temple Street market, winding though the bustling stalls and street cafes to eat with the locals.    
Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong skyline

After the next mornings early flight to HCMC I jumped in a taxi and was dropped off in Pham Ngu Lao, the traditional hang-out of travellers and back-packers.  I’d pre-booked a room via the internet and for $15 I had a huge top-floor room with three beds.  

I went for a wander through the narrow streets and was immediately accosted at each turn with the lure of guided tours and cheap/fake gear, the best approach being to smile politely, shake your head and don’t stop. 

I bumped into one elderly gentleman on a scooter a couple of times and he offered me a lift down to Ben Thanh market.  I should have guessed it would turn into a hard sell but I figured the back of a moped would be a great way to explore the city.  Whizzing through the crowded streets it seemed incredulous that there wasn’t an accident at every turn, but riders seem to have an almost telepathic sense of others.

The non-stop tour of pagodas/temples, museums and markets showed the extremes of the city. The modern hustle/bustle of a growing commercial city contrasting with the calm and beauty of the local temples/pagodas and the museums providing a stark reminder of the horrors of the war.   Four hours later I was haggling over the price, but I minded not, I’d had a wonderful day.  

It was New Years Eve and after a quick shower I popped into a bar opposite my hotel for a cool beer and ended up chatting to another fellow solo-traveller. Natalka, a journalist from Ukraine, had just arrived via Cambodia and was planning on making her way up through Vietnam to Hanoi.  We arranged to meet for dinner later and as the evening wore on the streets became busier as the locals headed down to the riverfront to celebrate the new year.  Joining them, the streets were a sea of colour and noise and were almost impassable as the New Year was welcomed in with a blaze of cheers and horns.


The morning after was what Vietnamese coffee was made for.  I thought it was just plain black coffee until I found the condensed milk lurking in the bottom.  Wandering around downtown HCMC was the only way to cure the hangover and to plot the next move.  My main conundrum was which way to head – either east through Cambodia and onto Bangkok or head north through Vietnam and up to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.  After spending New Years Eve in Vietnam it seemed only right that I stay and see more of the country.  Natalka was heading that way too so I had a travel companion for a few days at least, so the decision was made. 

Consulting a map we decided to hop on a boat and head down the Mekong river to the coast.  Arriving in the coastal town of Vung Tao we found it bigger and more commercial than expected so we jumped in a taxi and headed up the coast to Long Hai.  Arriving we found a lovely beach, but little else, but the light was other wordly as we strolled along the beach watching the sun fade away, the local fishing boats swaying gently in the breeze.

The next day we realised we couldn’t head any further north from Long Hai (bad planning!) so the only option was to re-trace our steps, via taxi and boat back to HCMC from where we would catch a sleeper bus that evening to Dalat.

Sited in the central highlands Dalat and was established by the French as a mountain re-treat and arriving at 6am the atmosphere was immediately noticeably different from HCMC.  The air was cooler and we were greeted by a few locals on mopeds, happy to help you find a hotel.  A quick check of options over a coffee led us to choose Hang Nga guesthouse, otherwise know as the Crazy House, a Gaudi-esque building of cave-like organic shapes and seemingly not a straight line in sight.

We’d already read about Mr Mitu tours who operate local excursions by motorbike. If you have the time you can spend a 3 or 4 days touring the area and even make slow winding route over to Na Trang on the coast. With time limited we opted for a day trip and enjoyed a relaxing meander around local villages, pagodas, coffee plantations, silk-factory, rice-wine makers and visited the village of a minority hill-tribe, whom were related to the hill-tribes in the very north of the country. Back in Dalat itself, the french influence was immediately evident with tree-lined boulevards and villas and a slower/quieter pace than HCMC.

I was conscious of the need to make sure I was back in Hanoi in time for a flight back to HK so I needed a bit more of a plan, given the distances involved and the slow transport. An hour in a travel office and a plan was hatched. We’d get a coach to Na Trang on the coast, from where we’d catch the sleeper train north to Da Nang, then another train to Hue for a few days before an internal flight to Hanoi. This would leave enough time to head over Ha Long Bay for a couple of days and be back to Hanoi in time for a flight to HK.  Simple.

The coach to Na Trang was a long 5 hours, winding through high mountain passes and stunning scenery – you could just imagine scenes from a Vietnam war movie.  Arriving in Na Trang early evening we headed straight to the railway station to grab tickets for the sleeper train. The plan was thrown into immediate jeopardy when the woman pronounced the train was full.  This would mean staying in Na Trang overnight and catching a train in the morning thus wasting a whole day travelling. Working through the permutations there was really no choice.  The ticket office then closed for 30 mins and when it re-opened I enquired again, this time to be told there were tickets available for this evening, but only ‘third-level’.  I booked them immediately before having a sudden fear that she may have meant ‘third-class’ and I had visions of sleeping on a wooden bench for the 12-hour journey!  

With a few hours till departure we jumped on a taxi-moped to the sea-front for dinner and returned for the train at 2300 hours.  Reaching our cabin I was relieved to find that third-level did indeed mean the third-level – the cabin had two sets of three bunks and we were on the top level.   The gentle rocking of the train and the metronomic sounds of wheels on rails were rather conducive to sleep, countering the somewhat limited comfort of a 5mm foam mattress.  As morning broke we de-camped to the corridor to stretch our legs and hang out of the window watching the train wind its way slowly along the coast. 

Finally arriving in Da Nang we plonked ourselves in the nearest cafe for breakfast.  We had a few hours spare before the next train up to Hue, so we meandered around watching the locals go about their day.  Bumping into a bunch of schoolchildren on lunch-break they were only too pleased to pose for the camera.

Back on the train it was a three hour ride up the coast to Hue, the ancient imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled much of southern Vietnam from the 17th-19th century.  The city was the national capital until 1945 when a communist government was formed in Ha Noi.   

Straddling the Perfume River, Hue is a treasure-trove of ancient temples, pagoda’s, tombs and palaces, rightly earning its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The old citadel itself sits within a walled complex just north of the river.  To the west of the city is Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue’s largest pagoda and home to monks, including young boys.  An organised tour was the convenient way to condense visits into our limited time, being ferried from site to site by bus, before ending with a boat-trip along the Perfume river.
The following day we headed to Hue’s small airport for a late night flight to Ha Noi.  Arriving at 1am we caught a few hours sleep before being up early to catch a bus to Ha Long Bay.  The 3-hour journey was fairly non-descript until the first sight of one of the limestone outcrops for which Ha Long Bay is famous for, the surprise being this particular ‘island’ was was actually sitting inland, marooned a few miles from the sea.  Arriving in in Ha Long the first noticeable difference between here and the south was the temperature.  In Ha Long the locals were selling gloves, hats and even down jackets and it was definitely chilly enough to don an extra layer or two.  

Ha Long Bay is a mystical place of around 2,000 islands, formed of rocky limestone outcrops and spires rising from the sea and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We boarded a wooden junk boat which was to be our home for a couple of days.  The view was mystical, the slight haze which typical at this time of the year, adding to the ethereal scene.  

Several of the islands have large caves inside them and we were headed to Hang Đầu Gỗ (Wooden stakes cave) a set of three huge interconnected caves adorned with incredible rock formations.   Exiting the cave you look down on one of the most recognised views of Ha Long Bay.  

With our boat moored up we jumping into a canoe and paddled out into the bay to see a few islands close up.  The water was still and an iridescent light gave a soft glow to the bay as we re-joined our junk, headed out into open water to anchor up for the evening.

The next morning we headed on though a maze of islands and finally reached one of the famous floating villages inhabited by a fishing community.  Nestled amongst the limestone towers and sheltered in a cove the village has its own fish farm, market and even its own tiny floating school.  Hopping into a small boat we toured the village and the surrounding coves before re-joining our junk and making our way back to the mainland and the bus journey back to Hanoi.

My time in Vietnam was almost at an end. Intermittent thoughts of changing my flight and extending my stay, jarred with the reality that this was my last evening.  Wandering around the markets and street cafes of the Old Quarter, Hanoi had more of an old world charm than the more commercial and edgy HCMC.  It was a shame that I wouldn’t have time to see more, but it an early morning flight to HK was beckoning, so it was going to be goodbye to Vietnam and goodbye to my traveling companion Natalka.

 Back in HK I had around 10 hours till my flight back to the UK so caught the train to the Island and took the rickety old tram up to the Peak.  The HK skyline is a truly breathtaking sight that no camera truly captures.  I stayed to watch the sun go down and the skyline transform into a rainbow of colour and light before heading back to the airport and the long flight back home.

It had been a magical couple of weeks, of colour, of sound, of contrasts.  Though I’d seen much, I’d barely scratched the surface of Vietnam, flitting like a butterfly from one place to the next, not really having the time to absorb everything the country had to offer but just enough of a taste to whet my appetite for a future return to SE Asia.  

A New Year to remember for sure, and one to be recommended….if you’re really not sure what to do at New Year, torn between friends and family, there is another option….escape! And I can highly recommend Vietnam.

My route through Vietnam – south to north
More photos from my trip can be see here

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