It was the ride from Hue to Hoi An that was our most eventful journey yet. Actually, it pretty much sums up the entire reason I began recording our travels.
Because at the end of the day it’s not for social media and it’s not something ‘extracurricular’ to put on a CV and it’s certainly not because I have shed loads of fans out there hanging on my every word. It’s so that in 5, 10 or 50 years’ time, I can read back on my posts, having stumbled across them in some sort of e-clear out, and be transported back to that time when we almost broke down on an impossibly narrow and gut-wrenchingly steep mountain road.
This is the stream of thought that I wrote down in the notes section of my iPhone from the back of the bike on the ride through the mountain pass to Hoi An:
“I don’t really know where to begin. So let’s start with this. I’m sat on the back of the motorbike that Tom and I bought back in Hanoi. It’s pitch black, and we’re somewhere in the mountains. Our journey time was supposed to be something like 2 hours. But then we got stopped by the traffic police at the tolls into the freeway. They sent us on another route, which according to google maps goes all through the mountains. The roads are insanely windy and unbelievably steep. We’re talking a mere 5% off vertical. I have to hold on with both hands to stop myself from slipping down. Every now and then there’ll be a clearing in the trees and you can just see thousands upon thousands of little lights marking the existence of the town down below. But there’s no point stopping for a photo. It’s so dark that it’d come out as a big blur- so I’m writing this instead. I quite seriously have no idea whether we’ll come out of these mountains tonight. The fuel tank is worryingly low and it’s not a big, powerful bike. It’s a 100cc scooter. We’ve already almost broken down once- Tom had a kick start it back into gear. Whenever a truck drives past, lights blaring, it feels so close that I find myself praying to whatever God, Jesus or Buddha is listening. The larger and more practical part of my brain is making contingency plans as to what to do if we get stuck in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam with no torches, no fuel and no food. So far, I’ve not really come up with anything. Maybe I should spend more time praying.”
It stops there. If I remember correctly it’s because the hills started going downhill rather than up, and I needed both hands, all my energy and concentration to stop from sliding along the bike seat. They’re deceptively hard work, motorbikes. Thankfully my non-existent contingency plans weren’t needed. The start of the downhill venture meant that we were headed towards the exit of the mountain pass. Somehow, with no further breakdowns and no lorry crashing into us around a tight corner, we made it out without a scratch. From there, it was easy riding (literally a straight line) all the way into Hoi An.
Hoi An is to Vietnam what Bath is to England. It’s that place outside of the capital city where tourists flock for beauty, culture and tradition. Just as Bath has its Spas, Hoi An has water lanterns and custom-made suits. I think that elements of the culture are somewhat lost due to the fact that everywhere is overrun with foreigners. The local vendors, taxi drivers and restaurants are very switched-on to the ever-expanding tourist industry, and really do hike up their costs for “tourist prices”.
Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that Hoi An is an incredibly charming city and both Tom and I really enjoyed our stay here. In terms of accommodation, you have to choose whether you want to be close to the beach or the old town. These are the two main attractions but they’re a good 6km away from one another (about an hour walk).
We went for the beach option, and stayed in what we thought was a budget villa. That’s until we arrived and were greeted with fresh iced tea and homemade spring rolls. The rooms were immaculate and there was a gorgeous pool in the garden. Turns out we got the room so cheap because it was a) last minute and b) there were building works going on next door. That didn’t bother us in the slightest. We were a 2 minute walk from the beach and our hosts bent over backwards to ensure that we were happy and comfortable at all times.
Like many hostels in Vietnam, the Estuary Villa provided free bicycles which meant that we could easily travel to and from the Old Town in around 20 minutes. One of the best things about Hoi An Old Town (in my opinion) is that it’s pedestrian only, which really adds to the city’s charisma – it made a nice change not to constantly be dodging motorbikes!
We spent our mornings lazing about on the beach, and then we’d cycle to the town in the afternoons when the clouds grew a bit thicker. We found an amazing cafe called the Dingo Deli, which did the best western food that we’d had in weeks. I’m normally all for trying out the local cuisine (which we did a lot of too!) but at this point, after several weeks in Asia and a couple of dodgy stomach’s, nothing tasted better than the Dingo Deli doorstop sandwiches with actual cheese and Italian coffee. It was more expensive than going for local street-food, of course, and I know some people that adamantly disapprove of having westernised meals in places like Vietnam. But it’s so hard to care when they did the best Nutella hazelnut brownie I’ve ever tasted.
Hoi An is one of those places where you really don’t need an itinerary. We were perfectly happy playing things by ear, lying on the beach, browsing the local markets or wandering down by the river. We did that typical tourist thing and spent an afternoon at a Tailors, where Tom got a custom suit and I (having said that I wasn’t going to get anything) somehow ended up with not one but two dresses.
Here’s where I have a confession to make.
After lots of deliberation, what if’s and route planning – we ended up selling our motorbike in Hoi An. We probably could have made it all the way down to Ho Chi Minh city, but it would have been very rushed and we wouldn’t have been left with any time at all to experience Saigon. We had a flight already booked to Bangkok that we couldn’t miss, so we cut our losses, sold the bike and bought two sleeper train tickets down to HCMC.
Ho Chi Minh City
I had created a jam-packed itinerary for Ho Chi Minh City. We had two days to see as much as possible. We spent the first day ticking off city landmarks. Saigon reminds me a lot of Bangkok and is generally much more westernised than the other places we’d been in Vietnam. American food chains are everywhere, and lots of high rise buildings too. We had a look around the shopping malls at Saigon square and gawped at the windows of the designer brands at the Eden Centre.
It was too hot and sticky to do much walking about during the day, so we waited until the evening before wandering along to the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Opera House. The Opera House was my favourite – I always love visiting performance spaces, even if I’m not seeing a show. You can take the girl out of the theatre…
On our way back to our hostel we spent a couple of hours having a look at the stalls in the Ben Thanh Night Market. Thinking of our shrinking wallets and ever-expanding backpacks, we didn’t buy too many souvenirs, although we did try some of the famous sugar cane juice to quench our thirst as we were walking along.
The next day we went on a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels in the Ben Dinh district, around a 40-minute drive from the centre of Saigon. This was a recommendation from my parents and I’m so glad that we took their advice. Used during the Vietnam/American war, the Cu Chi tunnels is an expansive network of underground pathways and bunkers. Spanning around 75 miles in total, the tunnels were used as hiding places during battle, and the different bunkers served many purposes; hospitals, living quarters, food stores and armouries, to name a few.
The site of the tunnels has been preserved by the government and is now a key tourist destination. You can go into the tunnels, learn about the military campaigns during the war and find out the soldiers who lived their lives underground. It’s a hugely interesting and interactive way to learn more about the Vietnam war and find out about the people involved. Unlike our trip to Ha Long Bay, our Tour Guide through the tunnels was incredibly good. She really knew her stuff and was completely engaging as well.
We arrived back into the city just in time for a last bowl of Pho and a couple of drinks before packing our bags and heading to the airport. Vietnam was full of excitement and adventure – but it was time to calm down, do a bit of island hopping and get our fill of sun, sea and sand in Thailand.
Missed parts 1 and 2? Catch up here!