Vietnam Part 2: Hoi An and Phong Nha National Park

After a disappointing start to our month in Vietnam, we had our fingers crossed that the north would live up to the hype. Luckily for us, it does.

We took a sleeper train to Hoi An, which was an experience in itself. We had the choice between hard sleeper seats in a 6 bed compartment or soft sleeper seats in a 4 bed compartment. We chose the more pricey option of the soft seats and went the extra step of reserving all 4 beds in our compartment so we weren’t crammed in a sleeper carriage with a stranger. I think it cost £100 between us for the 4 beds, which isn’t so bad if you think of it as ten hours of transport plus a night’s accommodation rolled into one, all for £33 each.

4 bed compartment on the sleeper train, Vietnam

We got into our compartment, locked the door and got comfy. After some train snacks and a bottle of questionable wine, we settled down to sleep. Unfortunately sleeping was quite difficult with the constant stopping and starting, the clatter of the train and the station announcements. I think I got a few hours of sleep though, and Blakey and Rebecca managed a few more. All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience. They had western style toilets which weren’t horrible, the beds were comfy enough and the air conditioning worked. What more can you ask for?

Mastering Vietnamese Cuisine… Sort of

Everyone told us how much they loved Hoi An, and now we can see why. One our first day there, we weren’t so keen. It was pissing down with rain, we were tired from the sleeper train and everyone was feeling a bit glum. We soon sorted ourselves out by booking some rainy day activities – a 2 hour massage and a cooking class.

The hot stone massage cost £25 for two amazing hours in a proper spa. It was so good that Rebecca and I booked ourselves in for a facial the next day too. We’re great at this ‘budget travel’ stuff…

Vena, our master chef in Hoi An

The host of our cooking class was hilarious – this tiny little Vietnamese woman who loved Blakey’s ‘big strong muscles’. We found it especially hilarious because when he told her his name was Callum, she thought he said Calcium, and none of us corrected her. Calcium was the star of the cooking class, definitely teacher’s pet. He got an extra long hug at the end.

A trip to the local market to get our ingredients

The cooking class started with a walk around the market place before strolling back through the rain to begin preparing our tasty dishes. We opted for spring rolls, special fried rice, chili and lemongrass chicken, and pork in a clay pot.

Winning at spring rolls!

Rebecca was extremely proud of her spring rolls, pointing out how much neater they were than ours. I reckon my chilli chicken was better than hers though so that’s ok. To be honest, every single dish was gorgeous. The only problem was that we were completely full by the time we’d finished the second dish, but still had two more to eat. It was a challenge.

Cooking class, Hoi An, Vietnam

Luckily our lovely host gave us a cook book each with instructions for each dish, which was great because there’s no way I’d remember how to make any of them. I can’t wait to attempt them at home.

Hoi An’s Old Town

We finally got some sunshine, or at least a break in the rain, the next day, meaning it was the perfect time to wander into Hoi An’s old town.

It’s a collection of beautiful little windy street which are lovely to explore – mostly because they offer some peace and quiet away from the incessant honking of car and scooter horns, as they ban vehicles from entering the tourist area.

Hoi An’s Old Town, Vietnam

To be honest, old town is really nice but at the same time it’s mega touristy. All the shops are selling the same tourist tat, the restaurants are quite pricey, and it’s packed full of people. Despite that, old town still retains some of its old-world charm and it’s great to wander into the old houses and museums and learn about a different era in Vietnamese history.

Hoi AN’s Old Town, Vietnam

Hoi An really comes into it’s own after dark, with it’s famous lanterns glowing from every doorway, arching over the streets and dripping from the trees. It’s beautiful to see. We fully embraced the touristy side of things by taking a lantern-lit boat ride up the river, watching the town’s reflection shimmering away on the water. It was a nice way to spend half an hour, with hundreds of colourful, lantern-lit boats gliding past us.

Hoi An by night

I think it was at that point that we began to see the good side of Vietnam, and it’s been growing on us ever since.

Cave Country

Once our time in Hoi An was over, we wanted to get out of the cities and see some of the Vietnamese countryside which we’d heard so much about. For that, we headed north to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Phong Nha contains three of the four largest caves in the world by volume. The biggest and most famous of these is Son Doong – the world’s largest cave. This cave will cost you an incredible $3000 to explore on a 4 day expedition, and the waiting list is a year or two long. More people have stood on the summit of Everest than have been inside Son Doong. You can fit a whole New York City block inside the biggest cavern. Son Doong is so big that the ecosystem inside the cave has created it’s own weather system – imagine underground jungles and rivers enveloped in misty clouds…

Well, we had to just imagine it. For a start, we didn’t book two years in advance. Secondly, we weren’t about to blow 3K on exploring a cave, no matter how special.

Instead we chose a day trip to explore Ruc Mon Cave with a local tour company, which set us back $70 each. That was more like it.

Ruc Mon Cave, top entrance to dry cave

While Blakey didn’t find the day particularly challenging, seeing as though he’s abseiled into caves in New Zealand and done other such adventurous things, I personally found it a challenge. Not so much the dark or the tight spaces, more the 20-meter-long ladders leading down to jagged and very solid rocks. I am not good with heights.

One of the smaller ladders in Ruc Mon Cave

Luckily the climbs weren’t so bad – mostly because it was pitch dark in the cave so I couldn’t see the bottom anyway. For the big ladder they gave us a harness as a safety measure so that wasn’t so bad. And to my secret delight, I wasn’t the worst in the group – there was another girl who was loads slower and more scared than me so that made me feel heaps better. I’m a horrible person.

Scooter Exploits and a Random Goose

While we enjoyed our day exploring Ruc Mon, the bit we truly loved about Phong Nha National Park was renting scooters and riding around through the centre of the park, surrounded by huge limestone karsts, cloud wrapped primeval forest and cascading rivers. It really took our breath away, it was like driving into Jurassic Park. We began to love Vietnam a little bit.

Scooter time, Phong Nha National Park

After one such scooter adventure, we stopped at a little café for a coffee to warm ourselves up before scooting off again (as Rebecca actually looked blue by that point) and ended up chatting to two Aussie expats who lived there and helped out at the café.

Riding about in the rain was fun but chilly!

Well one coffee led to beer, which led to espresso martinis and home-brewed rice wine shots… which led to dinner and more beer, tequila and jagerbombs. As some point in this blur of a night, we somehow ordered a goose for dinner at their friend’s restaurant the next night. We also woke up for our caving trip feeling less than fresh, and forgot all about the goose until we got a Facebook message later that day with a picture saying ‘your dinner is cooking!’.

So after caving we dutifully trundled off to the restaurant to find our goose. As the hangover had worn off, we bought a nice bottle of wine to go with dinner and eagerly awaited our bird.

Suddenly eating a whole goose didn’t seem so funny

Well we were not disappointed, it was bloody lovely. It came whole, just chopped up into pieces (bones and all) and arranged onto the plate as if it was still alive. It still had it’s head. Rebecca had a little gnaw on it to see what it tasted like. Blakey had a bit of neck but he said it was mega tough. Not much meat on the windpipe apparently.

Goose and Chianti, living the good life!

The next day we went out for another scooter adventure, ran out of petrol about a kilometre down the road and poor Blakey had to wheel the scooter onwards while I hopped on the back of Rebecca’s to go scout out nearby petrol pumps.

Luckily we found this nice couple with their little petrol enterprise on the side of the road so we filled up Rebecca’s scooter and ordered a coffee while we waited for Blakey, who arrived sweaty and grumpy a few minutes later. A coffee soon sorted him out and we continued on our way.

Local petrol station, Phong Nha

We decided to stay off the main roads and took a road less travelled through the little villages where the kids all shouted hello and waved madly at us. In one such village an old man was struggling to push a cart full of foliage off the road so Blakey stopped to help him out, earning himself a hearty handshake and a toothy grin in return.

Blakey giving a helping hand
the ‘road less travelled’ was sometimes a challenge…

Good deed done for the day, we headed off through the rice paddies and over some questionable looking bridges which were really fun to drive over. The view was incredible everywhere we turned. We just couldn’t get over how beautiful it all was.

Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam
Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam

For the price of a scooter and some petrol, we had the best day. It probably cost us max £10 each and we loved every second. It just goes to show that you don’t need to book all the expensive trips and tours to have a good time – get off the beaten track and go explore.

Worth the trip?

If you read our first Vietnam post then you’ll know that we really weren’t keen on the south and were feeling a bit deflated. Indonesia was amazing, and going from there to Ho Chi Minh City was a huge let down.

However, we are loving the north. The scenery is beautiful, the people seem more friendly and the weather is even getting better. Happy days. We love Vietnam, yay.

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