Vietnam

A 3 week backpack vactation

Bram Pintelon

14 minute read

HaLongBay

How It Al Started

It all started a few years ago before I met my girlfriend. I wanted to go on a holiday, but not on my own. The logical solution was to go to a Travel Agency with experience in so called ‘Adventurous Vacations’ - Joker. Little did I know at the time, my live would change profoundly in the comming months.

Long story short:

I booked the holiday and paid an advance.
Somehow I ended up buying an appartment. It was time to fly the nest, but I didn’t expect to find a place in such a short amount of time.
I cancelled the Holiday, because I needed the extra money I would’ve spent on the holiday for the appartment.
The Vietnam holiday was put in the freezer for a couple af years because I didn’t have any money left to go on a 3 week backapcking holiday.

Lessens Learned:
Travel is expensive especially if you cancel the holiday and the refund is “110” of the advance you paid. Think before you act ;-)

A Few Years Later

A few years later, life took another unexpected turn: I met my girlfriend. Butterflies gave me a kind of rush I had not experienced before. Suffice to say we are still happy together and are in a new part of our life together (we bought a house and I sold the appartment a little over a year ago). Next steps are under considaration, so stay tuned!

When then decided to take a gamble. Like all new couples that don’t live together because it’s too early in the relationschip know: you get to know each other (and all of the little things that annoy you) on a holiday. We already went a short trip to Mallorca (if you can, you must go there one day). But a week in a hotel is not the same as 3 weeks thousands of kilometers away from home and nothing but you two. So, we decided to go to Vietnam.

Why go to Vietnam? It was on top of my list of countries to see and pretty high on the list of my girlfriend. It was decided.

Vietnam, Here We Come (came is more correct taking into considaration that this blog post is long overdue).

Preparation

A few things you need before even getting on the plane:

  • An international Travel Passport.
  • A visa to enter Vietnam. You have to go to a Vietnamese Embassy for a Visa application. Be sure to apply on time, it can take a few weeks vor the application to come trough. There is a kind of emergency procedure available, but you will pay considerably more than with a normal application.
  • Your shots against several diseases. We got ours at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. Make sure you make an appointment otherwise you wont get your shots.
  • All of the stuff you need, or think you need. But make sure it’s portable because you will move a lot during the trip.

The Route

Sapa Picture 1

The route we took in short was this one:

  1. Hanoi
  2. Sa Pa
  3. Ha Long Bay
  4. Ninh Binh
  5. Hue
  6. Hoi An
  7. Nha Thrang
  8. Mui Ne
  9. Ho Chi Min

Initially there was a plan to go to Phu Quoc at the end, but we decided against it because of time constraints.

The Start

Our plane rides went as follow:

When Starting: Amsterdam Schiphol Singapore Hanoi.
When Ending: Ho Chi Minh Doha Brussels.

The reason we took 2 single flights is because it was cheaper and more convenient for us. We live in Belgium and returning in Brussels instead of Amsterdam was very handy and quicker as well.

Hanoi

The first stop was Hanoi. We arrived at around 11 in the morning at the hotel. Tired and sleepy from a long trip, but we didn’t waste any time. A quick shower and off we went, battling the fatigue and the jetlag.

We made a pact between ourselves and forced eachother to not go to sleep before 22:00 hours local time. So after an afternoon discovering the city, we went out to eat some local food.

We were a few days in Hanoi, that had a few reasons:

  1. Discover the city.
  2. Recover from the long trip.
  3. It gave us a chance to book the rest of the trip because we only booked a hotel in Hanoi for a few days

Tip: go to a local tourist office and ask them to book a few things. Make sure to go to multiple tourist offices because prices differ, sometimes more than 20%. But don’t get the cheapest available, because cheap isn’t always good.

We booked a few things at the tourist office. And they helped us with a kind of timeline for our 3 weeks in Vietnam.

  1. A trekking to Sapa (2 day trekking in the mountains with a group of about 8 people).
  2. A tour to Ha Long Bay with a night on a boat in the bay itself and some included tours (cave walk, kanoo around the bay and a fishing village in the bay itself).
  3. A bus ticket. This ticket allows you to travel throughout Vietnam. There are several companies that offer such a service. We went with Camel Bus. Most of the time we went with a night bus. Nobody wants to sit in a bus for 12 hours, but at night it’s slightly more comfortable.

The rest of the trip we booked hotels on several websites. Tours / Day Trips were booked at a hotel or in a local tourist office.

With all of this information, it’s time to go on a trip trough Vietnam.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a district close to the Chinese border. There is also a town with the same name. This was our first stop and environment for a 2 day trekking in the surrounding mountains and rice fields.

Sapa Picture 1

We arrived at around 6 in the morning. Misty, not knowing where the hotel was that was included in the 2 day trekking, we took a cab. After 10 minutes on misty roads trough Sa Pa town we arrived. After waiting a few hours, we were allowed on our room. After a shower (you smell after every night bus ride) we headed into town. It wasn’t until the next day our 2 day trekking would start.

The picture is a bit misty, but that’s what you get in the middle of the mountains near the Chinese border.

The 2 day trekking took us trough the rice fields along with some water buffalos and a lot of sun (at least the first day):

After a whole day of walking and a good lunch, we arrived at our homestay. Let’s just say that it was a good evening with Beer and homemade Rice Wine (and more than a few of them). Luckily, no pictures were taken during our little binge :D.

The next day after a great breakfast and dealing with a hangover, we went on our way. The weather started to change and after an hour walking, the rain started to poor down on us. Heavily, like it hadn’t rained in a year, heavy rain. Unfortunately for us, the rain didn’t stop until we arrived at our end of the trek.

The shoes did not survive the trip. They were abandoned at our next stop.

As you can see, it was muddy and wet. We fell more than once in the mud, the rivers, … The best part was that there were local people guiding us and keeping us upright. The locals were one the two:

  1. Young kids, no older than 14 or 15
  2. Old ladies, no younger than 65

Suffice to say, we were amazed about their ability to stay on 2 legs without any problem :D.

At last, this was the end of our amazing 2 day trek in the mountains around Sa Pa. We took a night bus back to Hanoi and readied ourselves for the next part of our 3 week trip in Vietnam: Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, famous because of a few things, but in particular:

  1. A James Bond movie: Tomorrow Never Dies: IMDB Url
  2. A Top Gear Special About Vietnam: IMDB Url

Ha Long translated loosely into English is: Descending Dragon. This is because of the thousands of inlets of limestone that look like the back of a dragon that came from the skies.

Our trip in Ha Long Bay was a 2 day trip on a cruise boat. Let me be frankly: don’t expect to be there alone with a few boats. You won’t be. There were hundreds of boats throughout to entire bay. Don’t get me wrong, it was very beautiful, but the romantic view we had of the bay wasn’t there.

We did a few excursions / workshops that were included in the price of the 2 day stay on the cruise boat.

  1. Visit a very large cave in Ha Long Bay.
  2. Visit an Oyster farm located inside Ha Long Bay
  3. Canoe around Ha Long Bay.
  4. Cooking workshop: how to make fresh Vietnamese egg rolls (raw and deep-fried).

All meals were included in our tour (breakfast (2x), lunch (2x) and dinner (1x)). All drinks were supplementary, but at very reasonable prices.

After 2 very full days of activities. We returned to the harbor and prepared ourselves to get on a local bus. We were going to Ninh Binh and not back to Hanoi, so they dropped us at a local bus stop with a note in Vietnamese telling the people we wanted to go to Ninh Binh.

The shoes were left behind on the Seasun Cruise Ship :-).

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh, a city south of Ha Long Bay. Not much to see in the city itself, but we wanted to check out the caves in the nearby area. And after 6 hours on a local bus ( a.k.a not a Camel Bus), we were happy to stay in a hotel with only cold water.

We also took the opportunity to let our clothes get washed by the laundry service of the Hotel. The clothes were full of mud from our little Sa Pa adventure a few days prior.

We had a very good lunch in a little restaurant, it was even mentioned in our guide book of Vietnam! We only discovered it in the guide after we had our lunch. But it was very good.

We booked a cave tour in Ninh Binh at our hotel. It was a tour on a little rowing boat with 4 people in the boat that went trough the caves. Some caves prettier than others and hidden treasures like temples were discovered during the tour.

If I remember correctly the cave are called the Mua Caves.


Go Early. We were there at around 8 AM, and were the first to start the tour. When we finished the tour the dozens of small rowing boats were all fighting for a place. So go early and enjoy the peace and quiet.

We also visited the Dragon Staircase, a stair case of 450 steps that lead to an amazing 360° view of the surrounding area’s.

Hue

No Idea what we did there. No pictures available. I remember calling to my Grandmother, but that’s it.

Hoi An

In my opinion, the most cozy city we visited during out time in Vietnam. It’s a relieve to see that there is a large car free zone in the old city. Rest at last!. After all of the big cities with millions of motorcycles, cars, buses and bicycles it is a relief to be able to walk on the street without getting run over by something on wheels.

Hoi An is also famous for it’s 100’s of stores that make bespoke suits, dresses, shoes, shirts, … Anything can be tailor-made.

Hoi An is a cozy little city (the old part especially). There are lot’s of things to see and do. At night, the lights go on and Hoi An transforms to a very nice and romantic scenery. Everywhere you see are lanterns in different colors and paper boats on the river that runs trough the city.

Me and my girlfriend paid 100 USD for:

  1. 2 shirts for me.
  2. 2 dresses for my girfriend.
  3. A pair of sandals for my girlfriend.

We probably still paid too much, but compared to what we pay in Belgium it’s still peanuts.

After some chilling on the beach and staying indoors because of the rain (it rained almost 2 days straight), we stepped on the bus to Na Thrang.

Na Thrang

The best place to be in Vietnam if you are Russion. Seriously, all of the menu’s, tourist info, road signs are bilingual:

  1. Vietnam
  2. Russian

English is almost non existing in Na Thrang. We stayed a 2 or 3 days in Na Thrang. The food was awesome, the beach was legendary and the snorkling was out of the world.

Na Thrang is one of the best places in Vietnam to go diving or snorkling. We booked a boat tour with a stop on a fish farm in the middle of the ocean, an hour or 2 of snorkling and chilling for a few hours on the beach / swimming pool of a posh resort.

Life could be worse!

Mui Ne

Known for it’s remarkable dunes (red and white) and the so calles Fairy Stream. The Fairy Stream is a river where you walk trough.

The Fairy Stream consists of a soft red dirt and is very shallow (ankel / knee deep). It’s a pleasant walk trough the creek (it really isn’t worthy beieng called a river). You walk trough the creek with your bare feet, just look out for the few cows that are grazing on the banks of the creek.

Jump We booked a hotel in Mui Ne. It was our second to last stop, so we went a little overboard and booked a somewhat more upscale hotel than we normally did. To our surprise the owner was a Belgian from Antwerp and the hotel was calm, so we got an upgrade to a big room at the more expensive side of the hotel.

It existed out of a youth hostel, a midrange hotel (were we booked a room) and an exclusive, exepsive, hotel. Let’s just say that are 3 day over there were full of bartime, pooltime and tour time!

Jump

We did a tour the second day that started at 4 in the morning. Our tour was:

  1. Sunrise on the White Dunes of Mui Ne.
  2. A Stop in a fishing village.
  3. A lengthy stop on the Red Dunes of Mui Ne.

All of the above was done in a jeep. You could rent quad to ride the White Dunes, but we didn’t see the added value of splurging much needed money at the and of our vacation.

Ho Chi Min

The last stop on our 3 Week Trip. The big city of Ho Chi Min. We saw only a fraction of the city, but let me say this: it is a big big city! We stayed there for 2 days. The last day we had to catch our flight home.

We booked an excursion to see the famous tunnels of the Vietcong. It was a tour in the Jungle with some history lessons, a jungle walk, a tour in the actual tunnels and some refreshments. You don’t have to enter the tunnels, but when you do, be prepared for some of the next things:

  1. Heat: when I went down the temperature reached 45°C.
  2. Humidity: there is a 100% or near 100% humidity in the tunnels themselves.
  3. Small Sapces: I’m not the biggest guy around (1,73m), but even I had to go on my knees trough the tunnels. Noting for people who are claustrophobic!

One upside: there are exits every 20m or 30m. So if you can’t handle all of the above (like me), you can can exit the tunnels relatively quick. In total there is a 400m tunnel availble to walk trough and only on the upper floor.

The tunnels we visited had 3 floors. The 3rd and deepest floor went almost 20m down, but they are not safe. The Jungle itself also is not the safest place on earth. Each year a lot of people get injured or killed because of the mines that are still a big problem in Vietnam. Also the Agent Orange victims are still plenty around. The poison affects to this day newborn children because Agent Orange is still in the ground. Not the prettiest things to witness, but an important piece of history that can’t be ignored.

Add some pictures of Ho Cho Min

This concludes our trip to Vietnam. The next one was Sri Lanka a few months after this long trip. Stay tuned for the post about Sri Lanka, a wonderfull country with great people!