After our spell in Da Lat, it was time to hit the road again. We took a short fifty minute flight to the coastal city of Da Nang. This was in order to connect with the Reunification Line which is the main railway in Vietnam connecting Ho Chi Minh in the South and Hanoi in the North.
It was due to take around 18 hours by train to Hanoi but we planned to break the journey a couple of times, firstly in Phong Nha.
Our connection from plane to train went smoothly and according to plan and gave us enough time to grab a drink and for Sarah to stock up on snacks from the station kiosk.
There are about five trains each day which run South to North and planning your arrival and departure times can be crucial, otherwise you could find yourself arriving in a city in the middle of the night and we didn’t really fancy that.
We had booked ourselves on a train departing mid afternoon, arriving late evening and Steve had managed to get us the last remaining two berth 1st class cabin.
This was a fantastic way to travel and although we didn’t need the beds for sleeping, it was great to have a quiet space to relax and watch the World pass by outside. The first couple of hours were the most scenic as the line was built about half way up a jungle clad mountain with fabulous views of the coastline.
We pulled into the small city of Dong Hoi which was about an hours drive from our final destination. We had arranged a car to pick us up through our homestay accommodation and the driver was there and waiting.
Phong Nha is just appearing on the travellers’ radar thanks to a relatively recent discovery of the World’s largest cave, Son Doong. This cave can be explored on a four day expedition! We are not that mad about caving so we visited two of the other caves in the area instead.
The first was Phong Nha cave which involved a 40 minute boat ride along the river. You then enter the cave via the river before getting off for a 15 minute walk inside.
We are noticing many things about Vietnam which differ significantly from other countries in South East Asia. The first one is the noise, mainly from the locals. They never seem to stop talking and they talk over each other in an ever increasing volume until it becomes a shouting competition. Then, almost always, someone is on a video call where no earphones are used and so ultimately the volume is turned up as the conversations around increase to deafening levels.
Unfortunately, we ended up in boat with a Dutch girl and a family of nine Vietnamese. At one point Steve seriously considered jumping out of the boat and swimming back but the water didn’t look too inviting! But despite the incessant noise the cave was still pretty good to see and probably just about worth the trip.
The following day we decided to visit Paradise cave. This was touted by many as a must visit and so, in the hope that it would not be as noisy, we rented mopeds and set off on the hour ride to the cave.
The ride there alone was enough to justify the trip. We rode through rice fields and between limestone karsts on narrow twisting roads in a fabulously scenic area. The women worked in the fields, and the men didn’t, and the water buffalo grazed in that slow lethargic way only water buffalo seem to do.
We arrived at the parking area for the cave to be faced with a 30 minute walk to the entrance. To be fair although the walk was mainly uphill and it was an interesting walk through the jungle with not too many people around.
We entered the very small hole in the rock face, down some steps and into a huge cavern. What we saw stopped us in our stride and it took a few seconds to comprehend what we were seeing. The cave was immense, it was pretty well lit and illuminated a vast array of stalactites, stalagmites and other formations on a scale of which we had never seen. We had previously visited a cave in Australia which we had found impressive but this was on a whole different level.
It is possible to do a few days expedition in the cave to explore the whole 31 kilometers or a 7 kilometer full day walk. We, however, just did the first kilometer and found that to be outstanding.
The other thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Then we realised that there were very few Vietnamese there. We would come to realise over the next couple of weeks that unless the excursions run from the centre of town or there is a coach to take them to the entrance and they step off the coach onto some form of transport to whizz them around, they just aren’t interested. The thought of making their own way there and walking, just doesn’t seem an option.
We made our way back to town via an even more scenic route than the way out, having a great time riding on the quiet roads. It had been a throughly enjoyable day.
For the time being, Phong Nha is all about the caves. So after seeing two of the big ones, it was time for us to move on.
We made our way back to Dong Hoi to catch the midnight train. We gave ourselves a few hours to see the city, but that was probably a mistake. It was just an old run down seaside town with not too much to offer other than some take away pizza!!
Our next train journey was almost 10 hours and with no two berths available we ended up in a four berth with a German couple who were already in bed and asleep when we boarded.
The beds had plastic mattresses and a blanket but we carry our silk sleeping bag liners with us most of the time, so we were in them in a flash and slept pretty solid for almost eight hours. Before we knew it we were pulling into Ninh Binh, our next stop.
The area of Ninh Binh, or more specifically the villages of Tam Coc and Trang An, come with a big reputation of having some of the best scenery in Vietnam. We would say this reputation is probably deserved, but it comes with a huge caveat.
The area is popular and as such you can do many things from the town. There are coaches to take you everywhere and there is no necessity to walk anywhere. Consequently it is busy. No it is very busy. Well actually, it is completely and ridiculously mobbed. It was our first big introduction to the over-tourism that many would say is ruining Vietnam. The situation is made worse by the fact the huge city of Hanoi is only two hours drive away making Ninh Binh accessible from there on a day excursion.
It is a very difficult situation to understand. From ours and many western visitors’ perspective Vietnam knows how to ruin its own natural beauty. Flashing coloured lights, deafening music and ridiculous childish features and settings litter the most beautifully scenic locations. There appears to be no regulation or control as to who erects what and where and as such everybody wants a slice of the tourist dollar.
However, we are part of the masses and therefore part of the problem. Probably more importantly the Vietnamese absolutely love it. It certainly appears that what we would call ‘tacky’ they would call paradise.
So for three days we endured Ninh Binh. We jostled with the hundreds, if not thousands, of boats in the National Park, taking the least popular of three routes and doing our best to take decent photos. We queued with the hoards to reach the view point at Mua Caves and actually gave up on reaching the very top as another Vietnamese passion, that of taking the perfect selfie, was causing a complete blockage. We also endured the chest pummelling volume from the fleet of neon light covered ‘Karaoke’ buses stationed in the centre of town as we walked out to dinner each night.
We saw as much as we could and vowed never to return!
We jumped on an early morning bus to Hanoi and watched the endless stream of day tour coaches heading in the opposite direction full of deafening chatter and selfie sticks.
We have been to Hanoi previously and roughly know the lay out of the city and how it works. Our favourite area is The Old Quarter. A real mix of old rickety buildings and various eateries mixed in with small modern boutique hotels all vying for space amongst the maze of narrow streets.
It’s easy to become disorientated in The Old Quarter as it seems like every other shop is selling exactly the same thing, ‘fake’ clothing by The North Face. T-shirts, sweatshirts, trousers, jackets etc etc, all at absolutely ridiculously low prices. Some of it is not too bad but the majority of it is pretty low quality, so don’t expect it to last too long. We met someone whose jacket had started to disintegrate after a couple of days and I suspect more than one person has turned up at the airport to depart, only to have a trouser leg fall off. Steve is watching Sarah’s new purchase with interest!
At one end of the Old Quarter is a lake. It’s about a mile around the outside and it is a popular activity for locals and tourists alike to wander around in the evening. On weekends the road is closed and all manner of activities take place with one of the most popular being groups of women participating in a cross between line dancing and aerobics.
There are also food stalls and exhibitions going on and we saw what looked like quite a big junior dance competition. The music, however, was soooooo loud we found it reminiscent of a heavy metal concert where you could feel the music physically vibrating your chest. It was impossible to stand and watch.
After Hanoi we had to make a decision as to what to do next. We were planning to head to Halong Bay. This is one of the most famous areas of Vietnam with its limestone karsts jutting out of the bay. However, we had heard and read about how busy and polluted it had become, how a theme park has been built there, and with over 900 vessels registered to tour the bay most of them advertising music cruises, it was all looking like a nightmare for us. So we decided to leave it alone and go somewhere else.
We had been hearing more and more of The Ha Giang Loop. This was a three day, 350km motorcycle trip around the mountains on The Vietnam/ Chinese border. When we discovered the most popular way was to do it as a pillion passenger, we decided to give it a go.
What happened next was elevated straight in to one of the top five things we have ever done!