Cat Ba, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

If you get the chance, a wonderful place to stay is the town of Cat Ba, on the island of Cat Ba, near Ha Long Bay. This is the most serene place I have been to in Vietnam so far, although you could see that during the high season this place will get busy.

There are 3 amazing beaches here, all about 10-15 minutes from the center of town. There is a cliff walkway between Cat Co 3 and Cat Co 1, all with chairs and drinks if you feel like paying, or for free if you are willing to lounge around on the sand.

Ha Long Bay Tour

Ha Long bay is one of the most beautiful sites in all of South East Asia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the the New 7 Wonders of the World. A definite must see if you ever visit Vietnam. The bay features over 3,000 limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes, which makes for an amazing landscape offset by clear seas and breathtaking sunsets.

I did a one day tour, that ended in Cat Ba Town, so that I could spend some extra time in the Town and on the island of Cat Ba. There are a number of other tours you can do as well, most people doing a 2-day or 3-day tour, often with overnight stays on the boats or on the island. A 2-day tour costs from $32 up and a 3-day tour from $42 up. All the tours use the same buses and boats, so paying more is not going to get you any better of a tour, despite what the travel agents say.

All the boats leave about 1pm, then head off to the Vinh Ha Long caves, and all arrive around the same time. So you get to enjoy the colourfully lit caves with 100s of other tourists, possibly not the best way to see the caves. After entering the grotto, you enter the huge cave, with very impressive stalactites and stalagmites. The path is narrow and straight, and can take you up to 20-30 minutes to walk through.

Then the boat slowly cruises around the cave, while the crew bring out a impressive variety of food, including some local seafood. After dinner your allowed to move to the top deck, and get the most out of the trip. It is about 2-3 hours to the island of Cat Ba.

A great experience, and very easy way to meet some fun people.

 

Arrived in Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital city in Vietnam, its second biggest city, but still seems more hectic than Saigon. The tourist part of town is to the West of the Hoan Kiem lake, and a good place to find cheap hotels. North of this is the Old Town, the last remaining one in the big cities of Vietnam. You can get a private room for as low as $10 if you walk around the back streets, although $15 is more common. Beware of tricks such as charging you for water, or claiming drinks from the bar fridges.

Hanoi is famous for two big tourist spots nearby, Ha Long bay, and Sappa. Ha Long bay is a definite must see, and there are 1, 2 or 3 day tours leaving everyday from Hanoi, all at around 8am. Or you can get a bus-ferry direct to Cat ba, on the main island also called Cat ba, if you want to escape the hustle of the big cities. Cat Ba is the most laid place I have been in Vietnam, often the roads are completely devoid of all traffic, but it is a bit tricky to get to. You can arrange to do a 1 day your, where they will leave you in town, which is what I did, and a great option to spend some extra time.

Make sure you shop around for tours, they vary in price quite a bit, and you all end up on the same buses and boats, no matter who you go with.

Perfume River Tour

No matter what city or town you are in when traveling around Vietnam, there will be a Perfume river boat tour, Hue, Vietnamnumber of tours that you can take, from morning tours to multi-day sleepovers. Some of them are great deals, with lots of value for money, others are complete rip-offs with loads of waiting.

Another hit and miss is the tour guide. A good guide will give you loads of information, and hopefully have a great sense of humor as well. Vietnamese do have a great sense of humor, once you get them to drop their salesman facade. Unfortunately it is so hard to find out what your tour guide is going to be like before you start the trip, a lot of tour operators have never even done the tour before, and they will say anything to get you to buy.The tomb of Tu Duc, the poet Emperor, is set in an elegant garden with a magnificent lake and pavilion complex.

One this tour from Hue, the 110,000 dong tour you can find anywhere, we drop in at the Garden house near town, continue along the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most sacred places in Hue, had lunch on the boat, and in the afternoon took a bus tour to the 3 most popular tomb sites. They usually chuck in a stop or two to get you to buy some trinkets, but there is generally no pressure, and they might put on a demonstration on how to make hats or incense sticks.

How to make incense display, Hue, VietnamThe extra stops may cost extra as well, each of the tombs on this tour cost 55,000 dong extra, the Garden house was 10,000 dong, there were extra options for lunch (which consisted of rice, tofu, and cabbage), and

Hoi An

Hoi An Ancient Town is an very well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, which lies on the banks of the Thu Bon River. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this World Heritage site.

Entry to all historical sites in Hoi An is via a coupon system, where 90,000 dong (US$5) gets you a ticket that can be used to enter five attractions: one museum, one old house, one assembly hall, the handicraft workshop (and traditional music show) or the traditional theater, and either the Japanese Covered Bridge or the Quan Cong Temple. Tickets are sold at various entry points into the Old Town, including Hai Ba Trung Street, and also at some of the attractions, including the Cantonese Assembly Hall. The city requests that visitors dress “decently” while visiting sites in the Old Town, as in men wear a shirt and women don’t wear a bikini top, sleeveless blouse or skirt above the knees.

There is a very nice beach about 3km away, which is walkable but better to get there on a bicycle (from 5,000 to 10,000 Dong a day), or a taxi, shuttle from the hotel, motorbike ride or chartered boat. The beach can get quite crowded on the weekends, where you will get to view lots of Vietnamese go swimming in jeans and tshirts. Not sure whether this was due to modesty, or to avoid the stinging jelly fish, which I did not encounter.

Made-to-measure shirts, blouses, dresses, suits and more are on offer from the renowned tailors of Hoi An. There are 100s of tailors to choose from, the cheapest being inside the amazing markets on the east side of town along the river. As a rule of thumb, give all tailors 2 days advance to prepare your garment and keep going back until you get your clothes right, and check the quality and stitching.

A nice enough place, not far from Da Nang, the marble mountains, China beach and my Sun in the other direction. A quiet oasis from the hustle of the bigger cities, but unless you are getting a suit made, you can take it all in with a full day.

Road signs are made of Gold

Road signs in Vietnam are made of Gold, as in there are not a lot of them. This becomes an issue when you hire your own motorbike for a day, but there are some tricks.

There are road signs that are white writing on blue background, posted about head height. The only problem is that there are so many other signs, every little shop will have their own sign, it is easy to miss. Then there are town markers like the one on the left, which will show you how far various places are.

When going to a major site, find out which town is near by. For example, the elephant falls near Da Lat is near the town of Nam Ban. This is a handy for not only asking the locals for directions, but also there is often a bus route going to that town. Every little village you run through will have a blue and white bus sign, and should mention the village you are heading too.

Inside towns, keep your eyes open for some roads will not allow any motorized transport down them. You will see a sign like the one on the left, where you can ride your bicycle down, but nothing else.

Have fun, and don’t be afraid to get lost.

Eating in Vietnam

So many great options for food here, from roadside stalls to top of the line restaurants. One of the things I have really gotten into here is the soups, from Pho, which is a

Vietnamese staple, and is never the same twice, to more plain vegetable soups. They can be had between 30,000 dong up to 100,000 dong ($1 to $5), so great value right there.

You will also see a lot of soups from street side vendors if you are more game (try some Bún măng vịt or Bún bò Huế. The other big things with these vendors is lots of noddle dishes (try some Bánh hỏi, Cao lầu or Mì xào dòn) and sandwhiches with special Vietnamese rolls called (Bánh mì).

You can get the rolls almost anywhere for about 10,000 dong ($1), so it is a really cheap option. Or you should be able to get empty rolls for 3,000 dong if you want to make up your own rolls, for the students and backpackers among us. You can get some creamed cheese for around 30,000 dong from the supermarket, as well as lots of other fillings. So if you really want to go on the cheap, this maybe an option.

Every town has a market with a variety of food, but most importantly lots of fruit and vegetables. Make sure you haggle, they will always start high. Get the price before they start bagging up, and do not be afraid to walk away at anytime. You get the best deals when you are being chased down, I got a new bag down from 400,000 to 100,000 dong.

My Sun near Hoi An

My Sun is a famous world heritage area about 50km south of Hoi An. Not to hard to get through, hire a motorbike for the cheap friendly option, or go on a tour. You should be able to get a motorbike for about $4 a day, and filling it up will get you to My Sun and back, with some fuel left for riding around town, and you could even make it to the beach if your lucky. The beach is about 5km east of town.

“My Son was once the spiritual heart of the Kingdom of Champa that occupied what is now the central area of Vietnam for over a thousand years.

The origins of the Cham are unclear, but it appears that they were an important element of the Indianisation of South East Asia around the first and second centuries AD. An important part of the culture of the various groups was the creation of massive temples and monuments, the quintessence of which was the amazing Angkor complex in Cambodia.” haivenu-vietnam.com

There are two types of filling stations, the proper ones we all know in the west, and small side ones. Both may try to rip you off, so watch them carefully, and pay them what you think you owe them, not always what they say. We had someone put in 63,000 dong worth of diesel at the Petrolimux station, and try to get 100,000 dong from us. We just paid him 60,000 and drove off.