An UnPHOrgettable trip - Backpacking through Vietnam

Tripoto
25th Dec 2017
Photo of An UnPHOrgettable trip - Backpacking through Vietnam by Devraj Jee

I write this sitting in KLIA2 waiting for my flight back to India. My brain is buzzing as I try to wrap it around the experiences of the past 10 days, the sheer bizareness and enormity of them - this has been hands-down the best vacation I have ever had. Why Vietnam? went the oft-repeated question from friends and family alike during the preceding couple of months. Well, this post should answer that and more.

Day 1

We landed in HCMC or Saigon as it is more popularly known late morning on Christmas day. Booking a prepaid cab (first mistake) from the airport we set off for our hostel in District 5. The place was a proper boutique hostel called 'The Common Room Project' and was situated in a quiet lane far from the blaring horns and loud pub music. Beautifully set up with probably the most comfortable bed I would have on the trip, it had everything one needs to take a break from a hectic vacation. Only problem was that this was the start of our vacation, and a break is not what we wanted at all. So we dumped our backpacks and immediately took off to explore the city. The sights and smells of Saigon are vaguely familiar to India with lots of street food hawkers, not too many high-rises and lots and lots of two-wheelers on the streets. However, the key difference was the level of cleanliness which was far better than any Indian city. Our first stop was The Reunification Palace which had been the seat of the South Vietnamese government before the North Vietnamese army stormed the walls and forced their surrender effectively ending the Vietnam War. For a history buff like me, the perfectly preserved ballrooms and conference rooms, and the American Huey on the roof was utopia. Quite naturally, our next stop was the War Remnants Museum a short walk away which was full of American tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, along with photo galleries of anti-war protests from around the world, and unexploded ordinances. The museum takes a dark turn as you visit the exhibits on Agent Orange and War Crimes and the mock-ups of the South Vietnamese torture chambers. With both of us visibly shaken and needing a drink, we headed off to Bui Vien Walking Street and went to a couple of pubs and got drunk through the evening. Returning to our hostel, we socialized for a bit with the people there before calling it a day.

Photo of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 2

We got up at 4 am to catch the early morning flight from Saigon to Hanoi. After struggling to get a hold of our Grab driver (English is the biggest challenge in the country), we checked into the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel - Downtown in the Hanoi backpackers' district. VBH was as lively as The Common Room was peaceful and seeing the party planned for that evening, we rushed out to cover as much of city as possible before we had to rush back. The location of the hostel is very conducive as all the major landmarks are walking distance. We strolled over to the lakefront and had lunch at this beautiful little bakery called S'Patisserie. Walking back, we visited the Huc Bridge and headed over to the place simply known as 'Beer Street' where we sat on stools on the street and had the traditional Vietnamese brew called Bia Hoi. By the time we returned to VBH, the party was on in earnest and countless drinks, numerous laughing gas balloons, a pub crawl/ after-party and many deep drunken discussions later, we returned to our dorm at around 4 am.

Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hanoi, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 3

A cruise in Halong Bay is something you always do when you are in Hanoi. We spent the extra few bucks and booked a party cruise (would strongly suggest this if you are not the introspective/honeymooning type) called Oasis Party Cruise. Their bus picked us up from our Hanoi hostel and drove us the 5 hours to Halong Bay. There we boarded the yacht where we were shown to our living quarters immediately which was gorgeous with a view to beat. One can either 2D1N or 3D2N trips with the latter staying an extra night in a bungalow on an island. We had booked the former due to our paucity of time. Point to note is that the itinerary of the trip is fixed and elaborately planned by the organizers and one should adhere to the same for the most optimum experience. Our first day started with a nice traditional Vietnamese lunch followed by kayaking around the islands (which I skipped due to my inexperience as a swimmer - huge regret). After the kayaking, there was a trampoline set up on the ocean but due to the extreme cold and wind, most people just gave up after a few jumps in the water and rushed into one of the 4 jacuzzis. This was followed by a hilarious session of Beer Yoga followed by a group photo and a dance performance by the staff on the boat. After that the party started in earnest as people danced, drank, chilled in the jacuzzis and/or huffed balloons into the night.

Photo of Halong Bay Vietnam, Bãi Cháy, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Halong Bay Vietnam, Bãi Cháy, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Halong Bay Vietnam, Bãi Cháy, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 4

Waking up late next morning, we dropped off the people doing the 3D2N trip in their island bungalow and had a Vietnamese cooking class (which I sat out off) before having lunch and being dropped back ashore. The bus took us back to Hanoi and from there we caught an overnight sleeper bus for our next destination - Phong Nha-ke Bang

Day 5

The bus got delayed by 4 hours and we missed out on the primary objective of going to Phong Nha (more on that later). But we did get some much-needed rest as we pretty much read, lazed around, ate and slept all day. The hostel where we were staying - Easy Tiger - had something for everyone with live performances at night, free beer in the evening, billiards and TT, and a whole area of hammocks for people to laze around next to the pool. To compensate for the dryness of the previous evening, we got pretty sloshed on Bia Hoi and Tiger beers and then stayed up till 4 am in a spirited conversation on politics with some of the hostel-mates.

Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 6

If anyone had asked me last month why I was planning to go to Vietnam at all, this was it. Phong Nha national park has some of the largest and most beautiful cave systems in Asia and going on an underground trek had been on my bucket list ever since I had first heard of their existence. So while this was what our plan was for day 1, the tour company was able to adjust us on the next day and off we went early in the morning. While there are multiple caves in Phong Nha, we went for the 1-day Paradise Cave trek which goes 7km underground. However, as luck would have it, part of the cave had gotten flooded and so we were only able to go 4km before having to turn back. Those 4km though, for lack of a better word, blew my mind. The trek starts with an electric buggy-ride to the foot of the hill from which one has to climb a large number of steps all the way up to the mouth of the cave. The rain was incessant and the tropical rainforest clouds are low enough to create a stunning view from up top. Descending into the cave through the entrance, the whole group collectively gasped at the landscape in front of us. A chamber bigger than any cathedral with gigantic stalactites and stalagmites all well lit up with stairs and wooden boardwalks snaking through them. So far pretty standard but that is just the first 1km. Where the wooden pathway end, our group stepped out into the cave floor, lit up our helmet-lights and ducked through a small entrance. It was then that the trek truly began as we walked through one immense chamber after the rest, ducked and crawled under rocks and waded through knee-deep water - the only light being the ones from our helmets, the only sounds being our own and drops of water dripping from the cave-ceiling. Our guide talked us through the entire trip, playing musical notes on some of the hollow diagonal stalagmites (I forget what they are called), switching off our lights and yelling together to hear our voices echo for a full minute and catching drops of water falling from the ceiling with our mouths. We also saw the strangest cave-dwellers - spiders, crickets and scorpions pale as the moon and without eyes. At the end of the 4km, we stopped for lunch which some guys had been carrying in tiffin boxes throughout the trek - home-cooked vietnamese rice with fried meat and veggies. After that, in what has to be a statement none of us on that trek ever thought we would make, we kayaked/swam in an underground lake 4 km inside the earth. After a long trek back, we were dropped off at our hostels after which we had dinner, a few drinks and tucked in for the night.

Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park Headquarter, Sơn Trạch, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 7

Taking another sleeper bus (this one at 5 am) from Phong Nha, we arrived at the UNESCO world heritage town of Hoi An. This was NYE and we had booked our stay at the Sunflower Hostel, famous for its parties. Quick nap later, we rented a motorbike and set off to the old town, and boy were we in for a treat! During the all-encompassing US-Vietnam war, Hoi An was left untouched via mutual cooperation and walking into it, one immediately sees why. Old French buildings with the most charming shops and cafes lining the riverfront filled with wooden boats. We had dinner and bought our passes which permitted us entry into any of 5 of its 80+ historical landmarks. Getting lost in the busy streets, we stumbled from one pretty ancient building to another till we settled into a cafe for the evening to have some dirt-cheap Bia Hoi by the riverfront while a singer played acoustic versions of popular songs. Dusk had another surprise in store as all the store-fronts and streets filled up with multi-colored lanterns. There were lanterns in the boats on the river and the whole place seemed prettier than any Indian town on Diwali. It was all we could do to not visibly keep gushing at the sheer aesthetic experience we were having. One more walk through the streets later, we found our motorbike and went back to our hostel for a evening of drinking and partying to ring in the new year.

Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 8

Waking up late we headed back to the old town to shop for trinkets and garments and lunch. Hoi An as I discovered too late is famous for its world-class tailors. Tip - always take extra budget for shopping. Late afternoon we headed out to Da Nang from where we had a train to catch. With 6 hours to kill, we visited the statue of the Lady Buddha with its great view of the beach and then squatted at an upscale blues bar on the riverfront till it was time to head to the railway station.

Photo of Da Nang, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Da Nang, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Da Nang, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Day 9

Nha Trang is a very standard beach town with nothing much in terms of tourist value and I would recommend anyone to give it up in lieu of an extra day at Hoi An. However, here we were checking into a pretty little hostel called Mojzo Dorm which was walking distance away from the beach. We did find one boutique cafe called The Living Collective from where on one random recommendation on Lonely Planet we headed to an art gallery of a photographer called Long Thanh, who apparently was one of the biggest names in Vietnam and is internationally acclaimed with exhibitions all over the world. However, we found a locked door on arriving but a signboard that said 'Open'. Trying our luck, we rang the bell and truly enough a girl came and opened the door, switched on the lights and put some music for us. Turns out she was Long Thanh's daughter and this was his home. As we were chatting, Long Thanh himself came down to greet us and what followed was a guided tour of his exhibition by the artist himself which included a peek into his study and dark room. With our minds blown at what we had just experienced, we headed back to our hostel for a shower and nap and proceeded for a swim in the beach. In perhaps, the only instance of bad luck on the trip, the sea was way too rough so we settled in for a few beers, had a traditional vietnamese dinner at the hostel and watched the moon rise over the ocean as we bid goodbye to this beautiful country

Photo of Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
Photo of Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam by Devraj Jee
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