Crossing the border from Vietnam to China

The plan was to catch the overnight train from Hanoi to Nanning. By the time we got to Hanoi this train was booked out for our preferred date and also the days before and after. It was getting pretty close to Chinese New Year after all. Our hostel offered to book us on a bus instead so we figured we should just go for it, we didn’t want to spend time shopping around and then find out that no tickets were available anywhere.

The tickets cost us 700,000 dong (~NZ$43) each. I asked the guy (his name was Smith) if it was one bus that went the whole way through and he told me yes. About ten minutes later he told us that actually after the border there would be an electric car. This didn’t make a lot of sense although I had read that you can pay for an electric golf cart to take you across the border. I later asked where in Nanning we would get dropped off and Smith said we could ask the bus driver.

All in all there were a few warning signs that this might not be the smoothest border crossing of all time. Did I mention that we didn’t even get tickets?

Flower arrangements

I have no appropriate photo so here are some pretty flowers sold in preparation for the Lunar New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam

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Circumnavigating Hoan Kiem Lake: two days in Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am after a night on the train. Our plan had been to arrive at 8am but unfortunately our hostel had booked the wrong train. It was about three hours quicker but that just meant we lost out on sleep. On arrival in Hanoi we went to Puku Cafe – a NZ cafe – that is open 24 hours. When we first arrived it was full of people sleeping on couches and I soon joined them.

After napping and eating breakfast at a more reasonable hour we checked into our hostel then went for a wander around the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Nearby was Hoan Kiem Lake which is one of the noted tourist attractions. We duly circumnavigated the lake, it was quite pretty and lots of people were hanging out on the lakeside. All of the streets around the lake were also cordoned off to be pedestrian-only so it was very peaceful. We later learnt that this is a new thing that happens every weekend which is pretty cool.

Pedestrian street by Hoan Kiem lake

Pedestrian street by Hoan Kiem lake – note all the kids in little cars

Our time spent in Hanoi was spent trying out different restaurants and going to a couple of tourist attractions – the water puppet theatre and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. For food recommendations we basically followed this guy’s blog which was really helpful.

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Spelunking in Phong Nha

Phong Nha (pronounced fong-nyah) is a small town next to the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. This is limestone country, and there are a tonne of huge caves under the surrounding mountains and forests. The largest cave in the world is here, although it costs US$3,000 to visit and gets booked out a year in advance.

We were not that rich or prepared, so instead we visited three other caves in the area: Paradise Cave, Dark Cave and Phong Nha Cave (+ Tien Son Cave). I think these are basically the three main caves that tourists visit on day trips. We took a tour to visit the first two, the best way to visit independently would be with a motorbike which we weren’t too keen to do. Mainly I was too scared. The third cave is easy to visit by yourself.

Our tour group was about ten people in a mini-van along with our guide, Viet, and a driver. First up we went to the eight ladies temple which is in a small cave. This area is right at the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail so was heavily bombed during the war. At one point eight people were sheltering in the cave during a bombing raid and a huge boulder was dislodged by a bomb. The locals were unable to move the boulder, although they could hear the people inside the cave. Such a sad story. The cave wasn’t opened up again for another 20 years.

Incense at eight ladies temple

Incense outside the eight ladies temple

After this sombre start to the day it was off to Paradise Cave.

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Luxury travel and the Vinh Moc tunnels

While in Hoi An we wanted to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels in the DMZ zone. After quite a lot of research we decided that the best option was to  take a private car from Hue to Phong Nha (our next destination) via the tunnels. We planned to catch the local bus to Da Nang then a train to Hue, but as this involved a few different transport connections our hostel successfully convinced us to take a bus directly to Hue instead.

We didn’t really see Hue at all during the one night we stayed. It used to be the capital of Vietnam and there is an old imperial citadel which is apparently worth a look, however we arrived too late to see it. The next morning we were picked up from our hotel by our private car and driver Thomas. The car cost US$99 and felt very luxurious. It almost felt wrong to be taking such an easy option.

Thomas was really nice and had pretty good English. He even bought Andy a coffee (of the super strong, super sweet Vietnamese variety of course) along the route. Our first stop was the La Vang sanctuary. This is actually a Catholic site. Catholics fleeing persecution hid in the forest but lots of them got sick. They started seeing visions of the Virgin Mary who told them to boil the leaves from the trees around them to heal their sickness. I can only assume that this worked.

Nowadays there’s some remains of a church and a number of Catholic statues.

La Vang Holy Land

Remains of a church at La Vang Holy Land

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The Hoi An tailoring experience

From Ho Chi Minh we caught the overnight train to Da Nang, which is close to our real goal of Hoi An. The overnight train was actually pretty good, the Vietnamese trains are so slow that it wasn’t too noisy or jolty. I was woken up the next morning by a woman trying to sell me a baguette. Turns out I should never buy anything within five minutes of waking up. I ended up with both a baguette and chicken rice (I thought I was ordering a chicken baguette) that were somewhat overpriced. Although it may have just been train pricing.

Vietnamese train hard sleeper

Our train beds – hard sleeper class

We arrived in Da Nang at about 2pm then hopped on the local bus to Hoi An which takes about an hour. In Hoi An we were staying at what turned out to be quite a posh hotel. Our room was cheap because it was underground and effectively had no windows. But our towels were folded into elephant shapes and the bed was HUGE – actually two beds pushed together.

Huge hotel bed

Andy for scale

So the thing to do in Hoi An is get clothes tailored. There are something like 600 tailor shops in town. Our catchphrase for Hoi An was “oh look, another clothes shop”. It’s crazy. What’s worse is that apparently most of the shops are just fronts, they measure you up and take your order then get someone else to do the actual tailoring, potentially in a sweatshop. It’s very difficult to know what reports to trust and where to go. Although of course everyone you meet will recommend you a shop so that they can get commission.

What’s more, the process can take a while and can be surprisingly stressful – especially if you are no good at shopping like us. But we were keen to try it out for the experience.

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Out and about in Ho Chi Minh City

On our second day in Ho Chi Minh we thought we’d better do some actual sightseeing. We teamed up with Jesse and Bailey and headed into District 1 to visit the War Remnants Museum. By the time we got there it was 10:30am and a lot of museums close for lunch. Worried that we wouldn’t have enough time before midday we decided to visit the Independence Palace first.

The Independence Palace is also called the Reunification Palace. It was the headquarters for the Southern Vietnamese during the war. Two tanks crashing through the gates signalled the end of the Vietnam War.

Independence Palace

Independence Palace. Fun fact: there’s a helicopter pad on the roof out back.

Most of the rooms were opulently furnished and had been used for meeting ambassadors or as the presidential office. The two most interesting things were the architecture of the building itself, and the bunker. You could enter part of the bunker which held offices for war communications and a room for the President to shelter from bombings. It was pretty cool.

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Wendy’s food tour of Ho Chi Minh

In Ho Chi Minh we were staying at The Common Room Project which describes itself as a ’boutique hostel’. It was awesome, highly recommended. Everyone was super friendly, and we got a lot of local knowledge and guidance from the staff – especially Wendy. Wendy is Vietnamese but speaks really good English with, strangely, a slight Australian accent.

The first night we arrived and asked for advice on where to go for dinner. A Vietnamese guy at the hostel told us about a restaurant and we went out into the street to find it. From the bus I had thought that Ho Chi Minh looked similar to Phnom Penh but this was definitely not the case. It was much more full on. An insane number of motorbike. Just crazy. And around our hostel the night market stalls cover the footpath so you are forced to walk on the road. At any moment a motorbike could suddenly pull up in front of you because they’d seen a pair of jean shorts they’d like to buy. Pretty much all of the kerbs are mountable to facilitate shopping from your motorbike.

Anyway, we wandered around and couldn’t find the restaurant, so we just ate at a random local place. It was pretty good.

Andy in local restaurant

Our first meal in Vietnam, noodle soup of course

On returning to the hostel we made some new friends. Matt and Max from Canada, and Bailey and Jesse from Australia. A couple of hours after we’d eaten dinner, they decided to eat. They were heading to a seafood restaurant that Wendy had taken Matt to a few days earlier. It sounded interesting so we thought we’d go along just to check it out.

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Crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam

We picked up our visas from the Lucky Lucky Motorcycle Company (I love that name) with no worries at all. Which was important because we had already booked our bus to Vietnam for the next morning. We had chosen to go with the Giant Ibis bus company (“affordable luxury”) because I had read good things and hoped that might translate to a better driver and smoother border crossing experience.

This totally turned out to be the case. The ‘luxury’ part was getting water and a pastry. They also checked our passports for visas when we boarded. The bus trip passed quickly thanks to multiple podcasts.

Leaving Cambodia was super quick. The bus stopped, we got out and waited in a short queue, then got back on. We were asked to give our passports to the bus conductor which is always sort of worrying but I had read that this is how it works.

Next up we drove through no-man’s land (probably still part of Cambodia) and got dropped at a restaurant/duty free shop. I was pretty dubious about the restaurant but it was actually not bad food and the prices were fine. Still in US dollars, no dong required as yet.

Duty free shop

Duty free shop at the border

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