The Vietnam Diary, Day 1 of 10: Hanoi
Updated: May 23
From north to south, on sleeping busses, scooters, trains and flights. A budget trip, with nothing booked and a massive list of things to visit. That's how our two months journey across South East Asia started: one eight kilos backpack, a diary, an offline map, a ready mind and a lot of energy. An adventure that changed us forever!
Step by step, I will tell you all about our journey to Vietnam. During the trip I had a diary with me where I used to write about cities we were visiting, temples, natural attractions, accommodations, costs, good locals restaurants and so on. I will share our journey to help with your trip or if not, maybe to inspire.
-1& 2 Hanoi
-4 Ha Long Bay
-5 Ninh Binh
-7 Hoi An
-8 Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
-9 Can Tho
-10 Chau Doc
Day 1 & 2: Hanoi
We took off from Singapore to Hanoi (Singapore was our starting point for the two months around South East Asia). At the airport, while waiting for the flight, we took advantage of the WI-FI, using TripAdvisor to check out for a cheap and central hostel in Hanoi.
From Hanoi airport we caught the bus number 86 (around £1 per ticket) to reach Old Quarter. We went to Chien's travel hostel, everybody was really friendly and helpful, the location was great and for the cost of £3.50 we had included the dormitory and breakfast. So we thought: "Perfect, we're staying here tonight!"
We explored Old Quarter while we were looking for a place where to have dinner. We stopped to "Pho 10 Ly Quoc Su" a super tasty noodle shop which I really recommend to try if you go to Hanoi.
We booked a free guide tour for the day while having breakfast in the hostel's terrace. We met up with the two girls for the walking tour. They were chummy and also prepared about the history of the city. Between a chat, introducing to the city history, and some laughs, harmoniously we strolled around the beautiful city of Hanoi.
After the walk around we moved to tray the Vietnam traditional egg coffee at Café Pho Co. It is a good-looking traditional café and the egg coffee, even though sounds uncanny, it taste so yummy. Make sure you try the typical egg coffee.
We decided to move to explore Sapa. The bus was coming to pick us up at nine o'clock in the evening, the sleeping-bus adventure was about to start. Arriving time was approximately 3:30 am but we could actually stay over to sleep until 6:30 am: that was really good news!
Surprisingly, it was much better than expected... Very clean and accommodating and we paid only £10 per person.
My first time travelling by sleeping-bus was off to a good start!
Day 3: Sapa
We woke up in the morning at 6:30 to leave the bus. There was a small station were we could have a quick shower and start the day. In the mid-time we met Vicky and Ben, a couple who were traveling Vietnam.
We had breakfast with the guys and we agreed to explore Sapa without a guide. This may sound okay, but the trek is not easy; the rough terrain and unpredictable weather can present some difficulties. We never give up, therefore we went for the "free-spirited" path!
Sapa is a small, mountain town in Lao Cai Province located on the extreme north of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. Here's where you'll find range of mountains, which includes Fan Si Pan—the country's highest peak.
It was beautiful visiting and driving around until our scooter's wheel broke literally in the middle of nowhere and there was no signal. After a while, we finally found a way to get back on track. My travel buddy Peppe went to look for a mechanic and after about thirty minutes he came back with some locals. We managed to bring the scooter to the shop to fix it. Cool, we can keep going!
Sapa was something extraordinary; the whole area is blessed with awe-inspiring natural beauty.
We stopped downtown to have lunch and to have a walk around a few villages.
In the evening we took another sleeping bus to move to the much-awaited "Ha Long Bay.
Do you remember when I said that the sleeping bus experience was better than expected? Well, we just have been lucky that time. On the way to Ha Long Bay the driver was probably thinking he was on a set of fast and furious. We did not have any sleep, we were just hoping to leave that bus safe and sound.
Day 4: Ha Long Bay
It was 7 am when we got to Ha Long Bay from Sapa by sleeping bus (it takes around 8 hours -cost is 400 VDN equivalent to £8). We moved all together with Vicky and Ben too.
We all checked-in at "Halong Happy Hostel". It is in a strategic location and prices are not too bad: £8 for a double room and £23 per ticket for the daily cruise through Ha Long. However, we will say goodbye to Vicky and Ben as they will have a three days cruise instead, and then they will go back home to England. We promised, we were going to catch up once in England, which we did... We all meet again in London few months after!
Ha Long Bay means "descending dragon". It is an area that contains 3,000 rocky and earthen islands, several caves and grottoes, typically in the form of jagged limestone pillars jutting out from the sea, all of which blend together to produce a spectacular view.
I was struck by the beauty of the picturesque seascape.
Day 5: Ninh Binh
From Ha Long Bay we took a bus at 6:30 am arriving to Ninh Bin by 11 am. Once there, first things first, we looked for information at the "Ga"(train station). We bought the last train ticket for the day which was at 10:30 in the evening (it cost around £20 per ticket). We would fell asleep in Ninh Binh and wake up at Hue.
Our stop in Ninh Binh was primarily for visiting Tam-Coc which is a natural groups of limestone mountains on a maze of rivers. It's a cheerful and impressive adventure by typical boat, it passes through water caves under the cliffs and close to hidden temples in the abrupt jungle land.
We paid 390 000 DNG each (approximately £13 in total) a 1 hour and 30 minutes tour.
We spent the rest of the day wander around the town by scooter, eating tasty fried rice and relaxing a bit.
The evening we went to leave the scooter that we rented closed to the train station. Over there it was an hostel that let us took a shower for 40 000 DNG each (£1.20), we had few beers and back to take the train to Hue. Time to move and sleep!
Day 6: Hue
We arrived to Hue after a long exhausting journey. After two hours on the train I began feeling sick. It was probably due to the fact that I had not sleep at all and I was throwing up until the morning. A true nightmare! Once in Hue I felt even worse and we went straight to the first hostel. I needed to do something to feel better and keep going exploring and visiting; so I took a shower, tried to eat something, but nothing.. I couldn't. I wasn't feeling any better at all. I took my temperature and it was almost thirty-nine. Oh man, not a good sign.
I took some medicine and I fell asleep.
The following day I woke up early in the morning, after like sixteen hours of sleep. I don't know how but I felt great, no symptoms like the day before. I was very happy, so I could finally visit the fabulous Hue Citadel.
Due to the war, a lot of Vietnamese buildings were destroyed, but luckily Hue Citadel is one of the most undamaged place remaining. The ancient citadel is one of the monuments recognized by Unesco as World Cultural Heritage. Its palaces, temples, mausoleums, pagodas and stunning gardens of a few hundred years old bring you harmony and serenity.
Time to keep going...
We caught a bus in the afternoon, next stop: Hoi An.
Day 7: Hoi An
We got to Hoi An by 8 pm. We stayed at Sunshine Homestay, we've got a private room for £8 and we could borrow their bicycles for £1 and the location is perfect, just few minutes ride to get to the town centre. We wanted to make the most of it straight away in Hoi An, as we were staying only for the evening and night. After a good shower we grabbed those bicycle and we cycled to the stunning center of Hoi An.
While most cities in Vietnam are known for turning their lights off early, Hoi An keep being lively, illuminated with hundreds colourful lanterns, until 3 am. The ancient town and riverside are surrounded by trendy bistros, cafes, bars, artistic lounges, and live music venues.
Emblematic of Hoi An, is a beautiful bridge that was first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link it with the Chinese quarters. Being built by the Japanese, so of course, the bridge was also named “the Japanese bridge”.
At the homestay the Vietnamese woman told as an enchanting story about the bridge: some ancient people believe that the bridge position was like a magical sword to control the Japanese monster Namazu. This was a treacherous, gigantic catfish. The creature was so massive that its head was in India, its body in Vietnam and its tail in Japan. The “sword” (the bridge), fenced Namazu from creating catastrophic earthquakes.
From Hoi An we decided to take a flight to Ho Chi Minh. We wanted to avoid flights but, as the bus was twenty-three hours (cost £12) and by plane one hour (£30); we agreed to take a flight as our plan was to stay in Vietnam 10 days in total.
Day 8: Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Busy roads choked by the traffic, bikes everywhere. Temples scattered around the city. We arrived in the vibrant, bright and exciting Saigon, which in the past used to be the capital.
Crossing the road was a nightmare. It was afternoon, we went straight to the downtown area to explore it all around. There are so many cheap hostel just right in the heart of the city centre. We found one for a pound, "Aloha Hostel". We always asked to have a look at the dormitory before staying in and to be honest, this one wasn't one of the best I have been into but it wasn't that bad either, so in the end we decided to stay. It was quite difficult to get there: the passage was through a dark alley crawling with cockroaches. Creepy!
Quick shower and off to visit Saigon...
Once again we rented a scooter, I admit that you need to be really brave to ride in Saigon, thanks God I had the best rider of the world Peppe ;)
Saigon is steadily moving forward. By visiting the city we could see a twisted mix of culture, history and innovation. At night we parked the scooter and we walk around the crazy street of Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao. This is an area in town center full of lively street bars and pubs, cheap eats, live music and casual ambience.
In the morning, we woke up earlier than usual to pack our backpacks. Before giving back the scooter we went to visit a massive market called "Ben Thanh Market" which is the city's most authentic one. You can find everything there, from food to goodies to souvenirs, all different quality and prices. Probably the best market in Vietnam.
For the umpteenth time we got a bus and this time we were going to move more down south, route Can Tho.
Day 9: Can Tho
Can Tho is the fourth largest city in Vietnam and the epicentre of Mekong Delta. At the beginning, we agreed to go to Can Tho to visit the extensive rural canals where the floating market is. Unfortunately when we arrived there we were completely knackered, so we had to change our plans and decided to take that stop to chill.
We checked-in at Yen House which is a great place with an amazing owner. After a good sleep we went for a relaxing walk in town, enjoying the charm of the traditional city. While there, we visited Ong Pagoda, which is an ancient colourful pagoda with a history of over 120 years.
In the evening, all the shops closed and the city switched off the lights. Not a single person was around. I was starving, so we kept walking until we found a small garage with some local people inside and an old lady who was making a soup or "something". Of course she did not speak English, neither I do Vietnamese. The point is that I had no idea what that concoction was made of. I decided not to mind that much, especially cos I was dying for food and I was really appreciating that "local people situation". By hands gesturing, I asked for one portion. Sitting in one of those tiny chairs, I had not clue what I was eating, but that's one of the good things about travelling.
The morning after, we woke up ready to hit the road!
We caught a bus and in two hours we would have been in Chau Doc, our last beautiful destination in Vietnam and where we will be crossing the border to get to Cambodia.
Day 10: Chau Doc
In Chau Doc there's not a huge amount of things to do, but it's a fantastic place - small, cheap, traditional and friendly. Also, at just 20 km southwest of Chau Doc lies the biological Treasure of the Mekong Delta "Tra Sua Forest". That is an immense wildlife reserve that has a wide variety of colourful birds and other animals like bats, snakes and turtles.
We reached the forest by renting a scooter and once there we had a tour by a motor boat.
Serenity and peace took control of the whole afternoon, there is nothing like stay still surrounded by the nature.
This final stop in Vietnam was wonderful: we had eyes like saucers and our souls were filling up with peacefulness.
The entire journey was a rainbow of challenges with its sleeping busses journeys and hostels adaptation. But it was time to say goodbye to this enchanting country.
Border crossing from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh
The speedboat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh is 4 hours long. When we arrived at the border we had to do a quick custom check. Then we got on the boat again and just about 300 m from Vietnam there's the International River Border Crossing. We applied for a tourist visa exactly in the same way as we did on arrival by plane. The tourist Visa Application Form is $30 and it's valid for 30 days.