We had our hotel book a bus ticket for us in Hanoi. Depending on who you asked or what you read, the journey to Vientiane, Laos would be somewhere between 24 and 31 hours.
“Is this a sleeper bus?”
“Yes, yes, sleep!”
At 5pm, a man on a motorbike showed up at our hotel and beckoned us to follow him. “Laos? You come.” We picked up our bags and followed this man through the streets of Hanoi, where he was literally corralling a group of backpackers on the side of the road. He pointed at us, pointed at the group, then took off to go wrangle up some more.
Once all of the passengers had been collected, we boarded a small van. Naturally, there were more people than there were seats on this van, so some of the passengers had to stand/hunch as the van departed. At this point, we all started joking that this would be the bus to Vientiane.
Luckily for us, and especially for the people standing, the van dropped us at the bus station after a short drive out of the city where we were herded to the desk to collect our tickets.
Our bus was meant to depart at 7pm but it was more like 7:30 or 8. Once we located the sleeper bus, we found that the storage areas under the bus (where they normally put your bags) was full of goods being sent to Laos. It is not uncommon for transportation buses to be transporting more than just people, but we had never seen it as packed as this. In fact, it seemed like transporting people was far from a main priority for the people running this bus.
They started barking at the tourists in Vietnamese and eventually started shouting and pointing, “Bag! Bag!” We fell in line and handed them our bags and watched them stack our bags up in the aisles of the bus. Once all of our packs were on board, the bus driver snapped at us again and motioned for us to get out of the way, as they let all of the locals board the bus first.
Once the locals were comfortably seated (all in the front of the bus, by the way) we were nastily ordered to the back of the bus, where we had to climb over and on top of each other’s bags to get to our seats. At first we were anxious to find that we had been stuck in the very back of the bus, where the seats are all smashed up against each other with about 2 feet of space between the bottom and top rows. It was very similar to sharing a twin bed with 2 other people, uncomfortably intimate and squished. The silver lining was that the seats in the very back of the bus recline all the way so that you can actually lay flat, which ended up making up for the lack of space.
We actually ended up sleeping better on this bus than any of the previous sleeper buses we had taken. At around 5 or 6am we arrived at the Vietnam-Laos border where we had to wait for the office to open at 7am.
We exited the bus and lined up at the window to get stamped out of Vietnam before we could get our Laotian visas. After paying a “stamping fee” of $1, we then had to walk 2km to the Laotian side to get our visas processed. After filling out our applications and waiting around for several hours, we finally got our visas and officially begun our journey through Laos!
We hopped back on the bus once everyone had gotten through the border crossing and made our way to the capital city of Vientiane. We were thrilled when we arrived by 3pm–a much shorter journey than expected! When we got off the bus, instead of the usual cluster of people offering taxis and hotels, we were approached by just one man offering all of us a tuk tuk ride (an auto rickshaw used like taxis, instead of cars) into town for 20,000 kip each. We had done our research before arriving in Laos and had read that the ride should really only be 10-15k each, so we and an Israeli couple we had met decided to pass and try to find something else. 20 meters away from the bus stop, another tuk tuk driver offered us a ride for 15k each so we decided to take that instead.
We walked around the center city area looking for a cheap room and found one near the river for about $9/night. It was literally a box with a really crappy bed in it and communal bathrooms down the hall, but it was the cheapest we could find, so we went for it.
We spent the rest of the evening wandering around Vientiane, checking out the modest night market and walking along the river. Despite being the largest city in the country, it didn’t take long to realize that Laos was going to be much different than Vietnam. The streets were really open and quiet despite being a Friday night, and our favorite part was that no one was hustling us to buy anything on the street.
We decided to call it a night pretty early since we had been traveling so long, and we were excited to get an early start to our exploration of Vientiane!
After another night in Hanoi after our Halong Bay Cruise, we spent the day hanging out at the Lake waiting for our night bus to the Northern mountain town of Sapa.
As described in a previous post, if you sit at the lake long enough, you are bound to be approached by university students hoping to speak with you and practice their English. On this day we were approached by a 9 year old boy who spoke better English than almost anyone else we had met in Vietnam! He was super cute and convinced Jojo to race with him and play tag. He told us that his favorite foods were hamburgers and pizza and that when he grows up he wants to be the president of a bank. When we told him we were American, he changed his mind and told us he wanted to be the President of America! Too cute.
Our night bus was to pick us up at 9:00pm back at our hotel where we had booked the ticket, and on our way back we stopped for pizza cones…which is exactly what it sounds like.
The night bus was packed with backpackers dressed in cold weather attire in preparation for the journey north. Unlike the previous sleeper buses we had taken, this one had really thick blankets, which made the trip significantly more comfortable. Not only do the buses not have heat, but it is impossible to turn the air conditioning all the way off (which is not especially ideal in 40 degree weather.)
We arrived in Sapa just before 6:30am, and we were allowed to continue sleeping until about 7. When we got off the bus, we were immediately hounded by people offering hotel rooms and Hmong women from the surrounding villages inviting us to stay in their homes. As we wearily exited the bus, we tried to dodge them so that we could have a minute to think before we decided on our next move, only to be relentlessly followed down the street. After several minutes of trying to politely refuse their offers, one of the women (named Zein) finally broke us and started telling us about her village. For $60, she would guide us on two days of trekking, home-cooked meals included, and one night’s stay. We have no idea if this was good deal or the typical going rate for homestays but we thought it sounded fair, so we agreed to it.
A seemingly random guy on a moto rolled up and we were instructed to give him our packs so that he could drive them to the village. This was a little nerve-racking, but it didn’t seem prudent to argue. So, freshly off a 10 hour night bus from Hanoi to Sapa, we watched our bags being whisked away, and began what would be a 4 hour trek literally up and down mountains to the village of Hau Thao.
We had been freezing cold when we first arrived in the misty town, but we were soon sweating bullets as we made our way through the muddy terrain. Sometimes there was sort of a road, but it was mostly really treacherous rock ‘trails’ and the mud certainly didn’t help.
This was much more than your typical hike through the woods. 90% of the journey was on a 45 degree incline either up or down, and if we weren’t slipping and falling in the mud, we were squeezing to the edge of the trail to let a buffalo pass by or hopping over small streams to avoid wet socks.
Winter in the northern region of Vietnam is very wet, so the visibility wasn’t the greatest; but it was sort of magical walking through the mist and looking over the cliffs into nothingness.
After what seemed like a never ending trek, we finally made it to Zein’s home. The house was constructed out of wood with a cement floor. The house was very open and didn’t really have separate rooms as much as different areas for things like cooking or eating. There was hardly anything in the house apart from a table and plastic chairs, a tv, a firepit, and cooking supplies. We were warmly welcomed into her home by her husband and children as they started making us lunch. When she saw us shivering, one of Zein’s daughters brought us an electric stove to warm our hands, as the house had no insulation. They also had a lot of animals. Aside from the pigs and ducks they kept outside, they also had two dogs with several puppies and two scrawny cats that were running around and sneaking food from the table.
After a huge lunch of rice, tofu, pork, and vegetables, we went for a walk around the Hau Thao village. We carefully walked along rice paddies and visited the home of one of Zein’s friends who was also accompanying us, named Ma Ma Mue. Her home was a little smaller but almost identical in style with large open areas.
It felt like we had just eaten lunch when Zein’s daughters started preparing dinner. Her oldest daughter was only 14, but seemed to be responsible for most of the cooking and cleaning in the house. We sat around the fire and watched them prepare a dish with pork and mushrooms.
After dinner, Zein brought out a water bottle full of homemade rice wine that she insisted we finish with her. I could only stomach one, but Jojo and Zein had about six! Although her English was limited, she knew how to say “Cheers!” in several different languages and after a few shots, she started apologizing for talking too much. It was hard to understand everything she was saying, but she started telling us some of her drinking stories which were really fun to listen to!
We were pretty exhausted by the time 9pm rolled around, and decided it was time for bed. Our sleeping arrangements consisted of several thick blankets on the ground under a mosquito net, up in the loft where all of the rice was kept. While it was certainly a basic sort of accommodation, the welcome warmth of the blankets in combination with sleep deprivation and a long day of serious trekking lead to a long a glorious night of sleep.
We woke up around 7 or 8 to the sounds of the girls cooking. After a breakfast of rice and the absolute best fried spring rolls ever, we prepared ourselves for the long trek back to Sapa.
This time we followed the road which should have been significantly easier than the way we had originally come. This time we had to carry our backpacks the whole way though, so it was still just as difficult but in a different way.
The visibility was much better on this day so we could actually see the farms and rice paddies carved into the mountains. The view was breathtaking and it gave us more of an appreciation for what exactly we had hiked through the day before!
Several hours later we had finally made it back to Sapa. Originally we had intended to take a sleeper bus that night back to Hanoi, but we were beyond exhausted and unbelievably cold, so we decided to find a hotel and spend the night in Sapa instead. Our hotel had no heat, but it did have electric blankets so we happily spent the rest of the evening resting in our warm bed and had the receptionist book a bus back to Hanoi for us in the morning.
We were so happy that we went to Sapa on our own instead of through a group tour. We found out that group tours went to ‘registered homestays’ as opposed to the one we went to, where you and 20 other people are put in what is more of a hotel than a homestay and given a much less authentic experience. We were able to support a local family and given incredibly genuine, one-on-one hospitality by Zein’s family. It was a very unique experience and we would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful area!
About a four drive from the city of Hanoi lies Ha Long Bay, famous for its jade waters and towering limestone karsts. We had done some research on DIY tours, but because you seem to end up on the same tourist boats in either case, we decided to save ourselves some stress and booked an organized tour from our hotel.
We were picked up in a small van along with about 10 other people and driven to the coastal town of Halong City, the primary gateway to Halong Bay. Once there, we got off the bus and were lead to the harbor, where we boarded the junk boat that would be our home for the next two days.
We were given a large (but un-special) lunch as we sailed across the water to another harbor, where we got off the boat to go kayaking! We were surprised to find that it was much sunnier and warmer here than in Hanoi, which really topped off our spectacular journey around the bay.
Next, we were taken to “Surprise Cave,” located within Bo Hon Island. After walking through a narrow passage, the cave opened up into a huge underground oasis of stalactites and other rock formations. We didn’t get many good photos of the cave because our Nikon died, but it was truly spectacular to walk through and explore.
After visiting the cave, we got back on our boat and enjoyed a sunset cruise through Halong Bay.
After another large but average meal the guests were invited to lounge on the deck and indulge in overpriced drinks. Through all of this (including dinner) the crew was playing loud electronic music and flashing rave lights in the dining room. (It is unknown as to whether this was supposed to be for our enjoyment.) We found this to be hilarious, but it disgruntled several of the other passengers. We ordered a couple of pina coladas and sipped rum splashed with coconut milk as we enjoyed the quiet darkness of the bay.
We retired to our small but comfortable room, equipped with a double bed, private bathroom, and large windows. Aside from the rats skittering in the ceiling all night, we slept relatively well and undisturbed.
The next morning, we were given breakfast as we made our way to Cat Ba Island, where we dropped off some of the passengers who would be staying there another night. Then we headed back through the bay to Halong City.
After lunch, we were back on dry land and on the 4 hour bus back to Hanoi.
We debated over taking another night bus straight away to our next destination, but we were pretty exhausted and decided another night in Hanoi was a better idea. We found a private room for $10 in an Old Quarter hostel, dropped our stuff, and headed for Ly Van Phuc, also known as “BBQ Chicken Street” where patrons are served freshly barbecued chicken wings, thighs, and feet.
It was about a 45 minute walk, but we figured after sitting on a boat/bus all day, we could use the exercise. When we finally got there, it was pretty dark and there were no other tourists to be found. It was a little unnerving as we walked by each establishment, getting stares from all the way down the street, but I think it was mostly because they were waiting to see which vendor we would choose. They all look exactly the same and serve the exact same items, so we went ahead and picked one for no particular reason.
We decided that after coming such a long way, we best try several items, so we ordered 4 wings, 2 thighs, honey roasted sweet potatoes, and flattened banh my bread toasted and coated in honey. It was soooo worth the 45 minute walk and I would highly recommend anyone going to Hanoi to make the journey!
As we made our way back to the Old Quarter, we heard music as we approached the street our hostel was on. On the corner where we were staying, there was a group of Vietnamese people playing traditional instruments for all of the people on the street! An awesome way to end the night!
Day 1: Halong Bay
2-Halong Bay Cruise: 5,095,000vnd ($238.55 USD) *
Booze: 320,000vnd ($14.98 USD)
Day 1 Total Spent: 5,415,000vnd ($253.53 USD)
*We got ripped off on this big time by our hotel. Other guests on the boat said they only paid $70 each for the same tour.
At 1:30pm, we would begin what would end up being a 17 hour journey to the capital city of Hanoi.
Starting in Hoi An, we booked our bus tickets at the hotel. After waiting until 2pm for the bus to finally show, we boarded a medium sized bus that took us on a 5 hour, long winding road through the Central Highlands to Hue.
Once in Hue, a seemingly random woman asked for our tickets, and beckoned us to follow her around the block to a big sleeper bus that took us another 12 hours to our destination. The seats on a sleeper bus are reasonably comfortable as long as you are under 5’5. If you are taller than this, you’ll be in for a ride stuck in the fetal position in a seat that is only about 12 inches wide. There are also two levels of seats (like, bunk-bed style), and we’ve learned that the bottom row is slightly longer. If you’re lucky, the bus will not be full and no one will be sleeping on the aisle floor. They also played Vietnamese music videos the entire bus ride, which were…really strange, but easily ignored if you had your own music or earplugs like we did.
We finally got to Hanoi around 7am and when we stepped off the bus, we were offered a private room for $12 by a man that either owned or was somehow affiliated with the bus company we used to get to Hanoi. He also offered to pay for our taxi there, so we said we would have a look. The room was decent and for an extra $3 a day we could get breakfast down in the lobby so we agreed to the room. The place is called Violet Hotel, and while we got a good deal on the room, the constant hustling from the front desk about booking tours was extremely annoying. Any time we came in or out, we would be stopped for a 5 minute conversation about tours we weren’t interested in. That being said, it was in a really good location so we were okay with the small hassle. We dropped our stuff in the room and spent the day walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Although its a big city, Hanoi seems much less Westernized than the southern city of Saigon. Many of the streets here are organized by what is sold on them. For example, there is a street full of shops selling only sunglasses, another selling textiles, and another barbecue chicken. There are also beer corners where people sit on tiny stools on the street to have a drink (as opposed to sitting in a traditional bar.)
After working up an appetite walking around the city, we decided to try Bun Bo Nam Bo, a popular dish in Hanoi made with strips of grilled beef and fresh vegetables over rice noodles. Unlike Pho (more popular in the South) which is a soup, this was more like a noodle dish and a little bit tastier (despite using virtually the same ingredients.)
A little more exploring lead us to Cafe Giang, where we intended to try another Hanoi treat: egg coffee. Egg coffee is made by whisking an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk, butter, and cheese, then adding it to a cup of Vietnamese coffee.
The place looked like a literal hole in the wall and was almost impossible to spot from the street. We were lead up to the second floor where we ordered one ‘egg coffee’ and one ‘chocolate with egg,’ which is hot cocoa made with the egg mixture, rather than coffee. Other items on the menu included ‘beer with egg’ and ‘rum and coffee with egg,’ along with a food menu as well.
We had no idea what to expect when we ordered our beverages, but once we tried them, we were hooked. They were both shockingly delicious despite the strange ingredients and we couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard of egg coffee before! It was a sweet, thick, creamy, decadent, delicious experience that one must try when visiting Hanoi.
We finished our night squatting on tiny stools at a popular beer corner on Ta Hien Street, where we sipped on cheap Vietnamese beer with a bunch of other tourists and locals alike. We also bought a couple of sugar coated donut-like pastries sold by women on the street all over Hanoi.
The next morning we woke up for a motorbike tour of the city we had scheduled the day before with a random guy that approached us on the street. Sounds sketchy, but it wasn’t. While our motorbike driving experience had been successful in Hoi An, we decided the big city traffic was best left for people who actually know how to operate motorbikes, and let ourselves be driven around instead.
We were picked up around 8:30am and were quickly off to our first stop: the Hanoi Opera House. It was built the French in 1911 and still holds regular performances. For some reason we didn’t take any pictures of this, but you can see some at the link above. Our next stop was the Long Bien bridge, where our guide told us about the history of the bridge and how it was used by the French to secure control of the North, back in the early 20th century. It was heavily damaged during the American War but some of the original structure is still intact. We got a glorious view of the Red River standing in the middle of the bridge.
Our next destinations were West Lake and Phu Tay Ho. Beside the largest lake in Hanoi, sits the Phu Tay Ho Pagoda where we witnessed people praying and leaving gifts like fruit, candy, and even some cans of Heineken. We didn’t see any other tourists in this area which was a nice change from Old Quarter.
Next, we visited the Van Nien Pagoda which is about one thousand years old, and almost entirely vacant aside from a few people taking care of the beautiful landscaping. After removing our shoes, we were allowed to walk through and take pictures of one of the worshipping halls. It was full of elaborate statues and built in the architectural style of the Ly Dynasty.
After the Van Nien Pagoda, we moved on to the Vong Thi fresh food market. We had been to several markets throughout Vietnam but this one was very different. It was apparent the second we arrived that this was not a place that tourists often visited. Food markets in Vietnam are often shocking (at least by Western standards), in that there doesn’t seem to be much regulation regarding order or cleanliness; but this one was on an entirely different level than the ones we had seen previously.
There was blood and guts covering seemingly every surface, and various types of animal carcasses and organs laying around everywhere! Despite the shocking scene, we were the ones getting the most attention as we walked through the market as people looked at us curiously and laughed at our reactions to the butchery taking place.
Once we got through the meat vendors, the market opened up to a more familiar (and far less vomit-inducing) produce market where we tried our first pieces of jackfruit. Jackfruits are large, alien looking fruits that taste a little bit like cantaloupe with a firmer texture. After only a couple of bites, my immune system determined jackfruit to be a sworn enemy, and punished me severely for having the audacity to ingest it. Only after an hour of transforming the lining of my esophagus and eye sockets into fine grain sandpaper did it finally subside. (Annoying, but no hospital visit requirement so…worth it.)
After the market we drove through “New Hanoi City” and down a street deemed ‘the most beautiful street in Hanoi’ by locals. After driving past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, we stopped at the Hanoi Citadel, which was constructed in 1010 and held court until 1810. On the front wall you can see large holes made by French cannons.
We ended the trip at a restaurant called Little Hanoi where we shared what was probably our best meal in Vietnam with our tour guides. They told us about their families and how they grew up very poor in a village north of Hanoi. One of the guides told us that he studied really hard to get into university after his sister told him that he would get to eat lots of food if he did. Their story was really humbling and we were glad to have supported them by going on their tour.
After the tour we met up with a friend of Jojo’s from OSU who lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a year and now lives in Hanoi. It was interesting getting the perspective from an American living in Southeast Asia rather than just visiting and really made us want to do the same! We ended the night after a couple of beers and retired back to our room in the Old Quarter.
We discussed whether we liked Saigon or Hanoi better, but we couldn’t really come to a conclusion. Both have their charms and drawbacks, but overall we really liked both cities for various reasons. Hanoi definitely feels less Westernized than Saigon, and it isn’t quite so blistering hot, but the street vendors seem to be a little pushier. If you sit by the lake for a while, university students will approach you and ask if they can practice English with you, which we really liked doing. A lot of Vietnamese people took pictures of us as well, and some even asked if they could pose with us which we found really amusing!
After a long sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An, we arrived at the bus station a short distance from Ancient Town where most hotels and hostels are found. Despite being hounded by taxis, we decided to walk instead, to save a few dollars.
We ended up at the Hoa Binh Hotel and splurged on an $18 hotel room a) because we were exhausted and desperate to put our stuff down immediately and b) because it was a pretty nice place, compared to the places we had been staying at recently.
After a quick power nap, we wandered down the street and into the Ancient Town of Hoi An. Dated back to the 15th century, Hoi An is known for its well-preserved history as a South-East Asian trading port. We walked through the town admiring the architecture and the streets lined with food vendors and silk tailors where you can get custom clothing made.
The well-known historical sites require a ticket to enter, costing around $6 each. In comparison to most tourist attractions in Vietnam that is really steep, so we decided against it. The Ancient Town is really beautiful on its own and we didn’t regret opting out of the attraction ticket. We walked up and down the river and over the bridges, getting a feel for the city and its inhabitants.
We also stopped for lunch at Banh Mi Phuong, boasting the “best Banh Mi in Vietnam,” and featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain a couple of years ago. Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, usually with pork and liver pate. It did not disappoint, and was especially favorable if you wanted options other than liver, as they offered 9 different sandwiches.
Hoi An is full of tourists and doesn’t feel especially ‘authentic’ despite it being such a well-preserved historical city. That being said, it’s a very pleasant little town and each night, hundreds of lanterns line every shop along the river which makes for a magical experience!
Because pretty much everything in Hoi An is within walking distance, it was really easy to not spend a lot of money here (and made up for spending more than usual on our hotel room.) We spent the entire day just wandering around and enjoying the town. We finished our night with a couple of mojitos by the river.
The next morning, we had to decide how to go about getting to My Son, the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries. The ruins are about an hour’s drive outside of Hoi An, but we didn’t want to take an organized tour; so, we decided on a more adventurous route: renting our own motorbike! (Sorry, Moms!) We approached a stand on the street advertising moto rentals and were given helmets as well. (You get a huge fine if you don’t wear a helmet in Vietnam, not to mention that foreign driver’s licenses are not valid which further complicates the issue.) He pointed us down the street to fill up the tank, and after driving around for 20 minutes trying to find a gas pump, we filled up the tank and went on our way!
The ride was was stunning! We drove past farmers working on rice paddys and through a few small towns.
The directions from Hoi An to My Son are pretty straight forward, plus we had a PDF of the directions saved to Jojo’s tablet, just in case. We got turned around a couple of times, and got caught in a couple of terrifying traffic jams, but after about an hour and a half, we had made it to My Son in one piece!
When you first get there and purchase your ticket (about $5 each), you have the option of riding your motorbike the rest of the way, or walk the 2 kilometers to the ruins. We decided to walk it because it was nice outside and the scenery was beautiful. We also stumbled upon a snake by the side of the road. When we stopped to look at it, it started moving strangely and a second head started emerging out of its mouth! After a second of watching in horror at this event, we realized the snake was regurgitating a large frog it had just attempted to eat!
We moved on from the snake and finally made it to the My Son temple ruins. My Son was built by the Champa Kingdom during their rule in Vietnam from 200AD to the 18th century. Although it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 90s, the site is not very well kept. That being said, we felt that the overgrowth actually added to the experience.
The Champas built the My Son temple out of brick, without using any mortar! Some of the ruins are down to piles of bricks, but some are still very much intact. We were surprised that we were allowed to actually walk through what’s left of the temples.
We explored My Son for a couple of hours, but decided we wanted to get back to Hoi An before the sun went down.
Once we got back, we returned to Banh Mi Phuong again for an early dinner and snacked on a fresh street donut. After walking around the clothing shops, I decided to have a custom dress made for about $25. We paid a deposit that night, then the rest the next morning when it was finished!
Despite being full of tourists, Hoi An is definitely worth a visit. There are a lot of historical buildings and artifacts to see within the city, and walking along the river with all the lanterns lit up at night is really spectacular!
Our bus from Dalat to Nha Trang didn’t leave until 11:00am so we spent the morning at the Lien Hoa Bakery yet again before heading to the Phuong Trang bus stop. A minibus picked us up and transferred us to the bus station where we took a big bus through the mountains and down to the beach city of Nha Trang. At times, we were entirely engulfed by mountain mist, only to open up to beautiful views of the Central Highlands.
Once we arrived in Nha Trang, we made our way to An Hoa Hotel, tucked in an alley across the street from the beach. We dropped our stuff and immediately crossed back over to enjoy a beer on the sand and play in the waves. The water was very cold!
After that, we showered and changed, and set off to find the Lousiane Brewhouse to try some Vietnamese craft beers. The beer most often found in Vietnam tastes like Bud Light at best, and Natty Light otherwise. We went for a Dark Lager and a Red Ale, both of which were more than satisfactory. We also gave in to our cravings for Western food and ordered a pizza and potato wedges. (No shame.)
After filling our stomachs with fried cheesy goodness, we moved on to a place called The Wave Bar, where we ran into a couple that had been on the same tour as us when we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels back in Saigon. We played Connect Four while enjoying $3 Johnnie Walker Black Labels (Thank you, Vietnam!) before calling it a day.
The next day we woke up to gray skies and quite a bit of rain. We had originally hoped to go diving, but we had heard that the visibility was terrible due to the weather so we decided to save our money. Instead, we treated ourselves to a hot mineral mud bath at Thap Ba Hot Springs.
A shuttle picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the spa about 20 minutes away. The location was beautiful and walking around the grounds was enjoyable in itself.
After dropping our things in a locker, we headed for the mud bath! We sprung for a private one a) because the private baths are hot, and it was kind of chilly and gross outside and b) because there isn’t much else to do in Nha Trang, so why not. For only 120,000vnd you can get in a communal mud bath which is the same temperature as outside, but as previously stated, it was cold and didn’t sound nearly as enjoyable.
After soaking in the hot mineral mud for about 20 minutes, we showered off and headed to a hot mineral water bath where we spent about half an hour.
Our spa day ended in the mineral water pool (unlimited time for guests), until we decided we had had our fill of minerals for one day. We spent the rest of the day wandering around Nha Trang until it was time to catch our bus to Hoi An!
After an exhilarating day of canyoning, we were excited to see what else Dalat had to offer. Our hostel offered a “Natural Countryside” tour which we were on the fence about, but we decided that we probably wouldn’t be able to get to all of the places it takes you to on our own, so we went for it.
At about 8am the van picked us up and we drove through the hills to the Van Thanh Flower Village, which spans over 500 acres and supplies flowers all over Vietnam. Many different kinds of flowers are grown here, but about 2/3 of them are roses.
Next, we took a walk through the Lat minority village. The leader of the village was very friendly and let us look inside and take pictures of his home. We walked along the street and watched children playing rope games. All of the people would wave and smile as we walked by.
Next, we learned how rice wine is made and we got to try some. They make 3 different versions with different levels of alcohol: 60%, 50%, and 20% (“for Westerners.”) We got to try the 50% and the 20% but they wouldn’t even let us try the 60%!
They also had some pet monkeys, one of which was threat yawning back and forth with Jojo…
We got back in the van after the wine tasting and headed to a silk worm factory which was simultaneously fascinating and disgusting. We got to walk through the factory and watch the entire process from rearing the silkworms to the collection of the silk.
Our next stop was Elephant Falls. We made our way down the slippery rocks with the aid of some rickety handrails, and got some really nice shots once we got to the bottom.
Next we visited the Linh Anh Thu Pagoda. We removed our shoes before stepping inside and marveled at the interior.
And we got to see the enormous Happy Buddha!
We hopped back on the bus and headed for the Highlands Coffee Plantation. Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee, after Brazil. We walked around the plantation and compared the Robusta, Arabica, and Moka plants.
Then we went inside where they keep the weasels to make weasel coffee! The process is as follows: The weasel eats the coffee berries, the beans spend about a day and a half in its digestive tract, then they are defecated in clumps which the farmers collect, wash, and sell for brewing.
Naturally, we had to try some weasel coffee. It was really, really strong but with a pleasant taste.
After the coffee plantation, we headed to the Dalat Railway Station. Built in 1938, it is the oldest one in Vietnam. Since its abandonment during the war, the railway is now only used for a 7km stretch to a nearby village, as a tourist attraction.
Our last stop of the tour was the architectural wonder of the Hang Nga Guesthouse, better known as “Crazy House,” designed and built by Vietnamese architect, Dang Viet Nga.
With inspiration drawn from Antoni Gaudi, and elements reminiscent of Walt Disney and Salvador Dali, this is a fully operating guesthouse equipped with various animals, mushrooms, and stairways to nowhere.
Each room has an animal theme connected to a nationality including a Kangaroo Room for Australia and an Eagle Room for USA. Guests can book rooms starting at about $30 a night, and tourists can explore the guesthouse (including unoccupied rooms) for a fee of 40,000vnd. The architect and her family live in the guesthouse as well.
When we finally made it back to our hostel after a long day of touring the countryside of Dalat, we made our way down to the Night Market for another evening of leisurely exploration. We also enjoyed a dinner of Vietnamese barbecue which we got to prepare ourselves over a small grill.
We felt a little shuffled around on the tour, but because we got to see so many things in a single day, we felt that it was well worth it. Capped off by a delicious dinner at the Night Market, day two in Dalat did not disappoint!
We were getting picked up from our hostel at 8am so we had to be ready by 7:30. We got up and went for breakfast at the bakery and got some kind of pastries with chicken, cheese, and vegetables on top.
The bus came and got us along with about 10 other backpackers destined for a canyoning (aka wet rappelling/abseiling) adventure at the Datanla Waterfall. It was the first thing we wanted to do in Dalat and we had never done it before, so we were beyond excited!
When we finally arrived, our guide gave us a brief lesson on the basics of rappelling, and we each had to practice walking and jumping backward down a small hill. After two practices each, we headed toward the falls for our first attempt at dry rappelling.
After feeding the rope through and leaning back until we were at a 90 degree angle with the rock face, we began inching our way down the 60ft wall. About 1/3 of the way down, the guide would yell, “1,2,3…JUUUUUUUUMP!!!” at which point we would loosen our grip and jump down the wall, then tighten our grip on the rope each time we made contact with the rock.
Once we got to the end of the rope, it was a gentle drop into the water, where we swam to the steps to move on to the next stop: a 10 foot free jump and a natural waterslide. We laid down on our backs and slid head first down the falls and were dumped into the water at the end. We had to hold our elbows in tightly and relax our bodies so we didn’t get banged up too badly, though it was still a little painful and we got choked out by all the rushing water!
Then it was time for our second attempt at dry rappelling. This one was a little over 50 feet, but a little more challenging than the first one. We had gotten more comfortable with the jumping so we tried some bigger ones this time. Once we got over the ledge, everyone started shouting “KIIIIISSSSSSS!” So we have this dorky picture now. 😛
Then we were off to the next waterslide. We got to go feet first this time, but it was really fast! And kind of painful again! But really fun, also. 🙂 We were advised to hold our noses this time which was a good thing because we were under pretty intense rushing water for most of the slide.
Now it was time for the real challenge: wet rappelling down an 82 foot waterfall. We were feeling lucky and decided to volunteer to go first. The rocks were really slick and it was easy to lose your footing because of the rushing water. I actually fell down near the top, but I was able to get back on my feet and continue the descent unscathed.
We didn’t realize how well we did until we watched the rest of the group make their way down. An Aussie girl was reduced to sobs, an Israeli guy fell and smacked his face on the rock, and an English girl was paralyzed with fear about half way through and ended up slipping and falling from about 30 feet up. Luckily there were no serious injuries, but I don’t think anyone was expecting this level of difficulty for their first time canyoning!
The face of the rock ended about 15 feet from the bottom, so once we got down to that point, we had to let go of the rope and fall on our backs into the water!
Once everyone stopped crying and shaking in fear, we moved on to the next free jump. This one had two options, a 36-foot jump or a 23-foot jump. Jojo jumped at the opportunity to be the first one off the 36-footer. This one was even more intense because you had to get a running start in order to clear the rocks.
Then we did the 23-footer together! Hitting the water was a little bit painful and I think it was my first time experiencing the “which way is up” sensation while struggling to get back to the surface.
Our last destination was the 53-foot rappel, affectionately called “The Washing Machine.” After about half way down, the rock face ends and we had to descend, on the rope alone, into the rushing falls that violently spun us around (hence the name) before being dumped into the water. One girl lost a shoe!
Our first time canyoning was a great success and will probably end up being a big highlight of the trip. Just another reason why we loved Dalat so much! We also met some great people which is always a bonus.
We got back to the hostel around 3pm and spent the rest of the evening hanging out in the city, getting dinner at the Night Market, and enjoying a couple Bia Saigons. This was definitely our favorite activity in Vietnam (and a great deal!) and we were glad to have added another adventure sport to our list of hobbies. Definitely a must-try if the chance arises!
After arriving in Mui Ne at 5am and taking a nice 4 hour nap, we got up around 9 and decided to spend some time leisurely time exploring the coastal road.
Mui Ne has a very laid back vibe to it despite tourism turning it into a resort town. The city is packed full of mostly Russian tourists and most signs have Russian on them. Apparently a lot of the restaurants and resorts are owned by Russians as well.
There isn’t really a ton to do in Mui Ne unless you’re really into kite or windsurfing. You can take lessons but they’re pretty pricey and we weren’t planning on spending a lot of time here, so we opted out.
We enjoyed strolling down the street, there were lots of creatures in tanks outside of restaurants waiting to be eaten by patrons.
We made our way back along the beach, though in many places the beaches have vanished due to coastal erosion and have been reduced to concrete walkways and steps. These can be treacherous at times when the waves crash against the concrete. We almost lost the Nikon, at one point!
Back at the bungalow, we arranged for an army jeep to take us to the sand dunes, fairy stream, and the fishing village. It picked us up along with 6 other backpackers at 1pm and took us to our first stop: the Fairy Stream. Colored by the clay, the red water stream is surrounded by huge rock formations and lush greenery. We had fun exploring the area for about an hour, walking all the way to the end where there was a small waterfall. The water was almost waist-deep at some points, which was really a blessing as the sun was pretty relentless this day.
We hopped back in the jeep and drove down to the fishing village. The village was fascinating but also a little depressing, as the beach was covered in garbage and dead sea creatures. From the top of the steps leading to the beach we got a really nice view of all of the boats.
Our next destination was the massive white sand dunes. We climbed up the highest one nearby and enjoyed a picturesque view of the Lotus Lake and surrounding dunes. Jojo also had fun jumping off the peak and tumbling down. Your feet would sink in calf-deep when you try to climb back up!
You can also rent four wheelers for 400,000vnd/20 minutes to zip up and down the dunes with a bit more speed and excitement.
Our last stop was the red sand dunes which were less impressive size-wise but spectacular in color. The sand was was cool on top but almost burning hot when our feet sank down about a foot.
We were dropped back at our bungalow around dinner time, so we walked down to a restaurant called Indo Bar where we feasted on fresh and wonderfully affordable calamari, squid, and scallops. We also walked a little further down the street and stopped at Joe’s Cafe for a drink and listened to some live music.
We had been told several times that Mui Ne was not a destination worth going to, and we could see why some people feel that way, given that the town itself doesn’t have much going on. However, we personally felt that the jeep tour made it worth it for us, and we might have stayed another day or two for kitesurfing if we had more time. But, our visas expire in a few short weeks and we have much to see and do before then!
We were throwing around a few different options regarding transportation to our next destination, the coastal town of Mui Ne, known for its sand dunes and kite/windsurfing.
Option A) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon. Spend another night in Saigon. Take a 6h bus the next morning to Mui Ne.
Option B) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon. Catch the next 6h bus to Mui Ne.
Option C) Take the 3.5h bus back to Saigon. Spend a few hours in Saigon. Take the 11pm 6h sleeper bus to Mui Ne.
We decided Option C was preferable because it allowed us to enjoy a few more hours in Saigon, while also saving us a night’s accommodation since we’d be sleeping on the bus.
After breakfast, including some grilled bananas and coconut cakes, we took a taxi back to the bus station outside Can Tho. Our first mistake was allowing ourselves to be swept into one of the bus company offices without looking for the one used to get to Can Tho first. We used Phuong Trang to get to Can Tho and had a perfectly pleasant experience, in contrast with what we were about to encounter. We didn’t even catch the name of the bus company we had stumbled into, but the woman at the desk insisted that there were no big buses to Saigon and that the only option was a minibus. Translate: This company in particular does not offer big buses to Saigon. We naively took her word and allowed ourselves to be directed to a minibus (aka large van) with about 12 seats.
This is okay, it’s only a 3.5 hour ride! Wrong.
Firstly, we ended up in the back row of the bus where the seats do not recline. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except for the fact that all of the other rows reclined a lot so the people sitting in front of us were essentially laying in our laps. Like, small domestic airplanes are luxury compared to this. We had good attitudes about it and comforted ourselves in the fact that it only cost us 90,000vnd ($4.20 USD) each.
After about 30 minutes of sitting around (I think we were waiting for all the seats to be filled) we finally took off at about 10:30am. As we departed and hit the first bump in the road, the row in front of us bounced into our knees. Hard. Now we understood why they were sitting at a 140 degree angle, the row of seats were actually broken. Thus, every slight disturbance in the road caused the row to bounce almost violently. In fact it looked quite unpleasant for the people sitting there as well as for us. To avoid further trauma to our knee caps, we experimented with all sorts of unconventional positions for sitting.
Luckily our spirits were relentlessly high today, because we would soon realize that this bus would also be stopping at least 20-30 times on the way to Saigon. Apparently we had landed ourselves on the local bus, so it actually took about 4.5 hours due to the frequent stops. At some points there were so many people packed onto this bus that they were not even in seats, including several small children.
If nothing else, it made for a good story. Every backpacking adventure has at least one hellish bus ride, and it surely won’t be our last. We finally made it to Saigon and had to take another taxi back to Pham Ngu Lao st. where we were to catch the sleeper bus to Mui Ne. We went ahead and purchased our ticket and headed to a nearby smoothie shop. We enjoyed a coffee and a banana smoothie (and free wifi), and after a few hours there, we roamed around the backpacker district some more which is a lot of a fun at night time.
At this point it was around 6 or 7pm and we decided to go to Highlands Coffee, where we enjoyed a couple of mojitos and some more free wifi (yay blogging time!) Around 10:30pm we walked back to the bus stop where we were informed that our bus would come at 11 and we should stand outside and wait for it. Now, it’s worth noting that we chose Phuong Trang again since we had a good experience getting to Can Tho, but this didn’t go quite as smoothly. The buses all say their destination on the front and we kept seeing buses headed to Dalat. Mui Ne is on the way to Dalat, so we asked if these were the buses we were supposed to be getting on, but we were told our bus was still coming. This happened several times, so we decided we would stop asking and wait for a bus that said Mui Ne on it. Finally at 12am, a bus that said Mui Ne rolled up. When we approached the door, the driver told us this was the 12:00 bus, our tickets were for the 11:00 bus, and that we should have been here at 10:45 to catch it.
We have been here since 10:30! The bus did not come!
It was apparent that the driver did not fully understand what were saying and kept insisting that we missed the bus because we did not arrive early enough. Normally we are not very pushy people, but we had already had a day full of transportation difficulties. We were getting to Mui Ne, and we were getting there on this sleeper bus. After all of the other passengers got on (it was not full), and a few more desperate pleas, the driver finally let us on the bus.
Sleeper buses can be great because they save you a night’s accommodation and you get to fully recline, making the ride pretty comfortable. Our driver was pretty keen to lay on the horn and there was a distressed infant on board, so sleeping didn’t come quite as easy as we had expected. Additionally, because we ended up taking a later bus, the drive was shorter because there was less traffic. So we landed in Mui Ne just after 5am, a little early for finding a place to stay in a small town.
We were dropped off in front of some bungalows that didn’t appear to be open, so we just parked it out front and decided to wait until they were. After about half an hour sitting in the dark, a man who appeared to be a security guard walked out and asked us what we were doing. Do you have a room available? He didn’t answer us, but got on his phone, made a call, and opened the gate. A woman in a night gown appeared and lead us to one of the bungalows, which we promptly accepted and proceeded to fall asleep.
We knew getting to Mui Ne from Can Tho would be some kind of adventure, and despite the complications, we were glad to have finally made it to the beach! In hindsight, it’s important to pay attention to what company you are booking (anything) with. Sometimes companies will push you around in hopes of getting you to purchase before you’ve realized what you’re actually doing and what your other options are. Additionally, if in doubt, ask every single bus if it’s the one you’re supposed to be on! People will almost always help you if you ask.