Time to go home

I cannot believe I am writing our final blog post already! The last 8 months have flown by, I can still picture what the countryside looked like in the UK, all dry from the August sunshine as we were leaving on the Eurostar for our big adventure. As I explained in an earlier post back in November, we didn’t manage to get the whole way from London to Vietnam without flying as we had hoped to do. Still, only 5 flights in total is still pretty good going I think.

Now we are having a couple of chilled out weeks in Thailand before catching our flight home at the start of April where the daunting task of getting back to reality will begin. It has been great travelling for this long, but I certainly couldn’t do it forever. I am looking forward to getting somewhere to live, cooking my own meals and being able to source a decent cup of tea when required!

As this is our last post I am going to dedicate it to the highlights of our trip.

First up, favourite moments from each country:

Europe (yes, I know it isn’t a country, but we only spent 2 weeks whizzing through on our way to Russia!): Hanging out with Andy and Jane in Berlin and getting to see all the places they liked to go to.

Relaxing!

Russia: Our hike from Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty.

Baikal Trail

China (entry number 1): Seeing the baby pandas in Chengdu.

Pandas

Taiwan: Visiting Taipei and getting a local point of view from Shirley.

Taipei

China (entry number 2): Surviving our hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge when it turned out to be more eventful than expected!

Thailand: Learning how to scuba dive in Koh Tao and transforming from someone who was scared to someone who was hooked on swimming with the fishes.

Laos: Learning how to kayak properly on our epic three-day journey from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.

Our Kayak

Cambodia: Marvelling at the temples of Angkor.

Vietnam: Exploring the caves in Phong Nha National Park.

Paradise Cave

Next up is the category section, here we are going to announce our favourites of the trip as a whole:

Favourite Country: The judges were split on this, so there is a joint winner. Laos was my favourite and China was Alan’s.

Best Food: Another split opinion here… I vote for Vietnam, Alan has gone for Thailand.

Vietnamese street food in Dalat

Most Beautiful Beach: Otres Beach in Cambodia (if you block out all the people hassling you for stuff). The sand was silky smooth and the sea crystal clear. You could wade out for ages and still not be out of depth.

Otres Beach

Favourite Trek: Tiger Leaping Gorge for its breathtaking scenery.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Best Scuba Diving: Technically this one shouldn’t be allowed to win as it is post the London to Vietnam adventure, but the Similian Island liveaboard trip we have just done here in Thailand was fantastic.

Best Historical Site: Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat

Most Unique Transport Experience: Riding on the Maglev train in Shanghai on our way to Pudong Airport. This train has no wheels and floats using a magnetic current above the track. It reaches speeds of 430 km/hour. Just wow!

Maglev

Favourite Beer: Beer Laos.

River weed

Best Country for Accommodation: Vietnam. Our budget went a lot further in Vietnam and we could stay in places that felt mildly luxurious but in actual fact were cheaper than two dorm beds in Europe.

Best Waterfall: A clear winner in this category is the Kuang Si Cascades near Luang Prabang. The colour of the water, the numerous swimming opportunities and the scale of it was spectacular.

Kuang Si

Favourite Animal Experience: I’ll be honest, there have been a lot of cute kittens on our trip, especially in Laos on Four Thousand Islands, but the best animal experience has got to be our day at Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai.

Elephant Nature Park

Place I could most see myself living in: Taipei.

Most Extreme Day Out: Throwing ourselves off of cliffs and down waterfalls whilst canyoning in Dalat.

Dalat: Canyoning

We have enjoyed writing this blog, we hope you have enjoyed reading it too.

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Cat Ba & Halong Bay

Cat Ba

We based ourselves on Cat Ba Island to visit Halong Bay, not fancying an epic journey to and from Hanoi on a day trip. By basing ourselves on Cat Ba we could take things more slowly and get more out of our visit by not having a rushed experience.

Cat Ba Town in March is very quiet, it is not especially warm and it will most probably rain too but we didn’t mind, it was peaceful and unlike other places in Vietnam you can walk around without being constantly menaced by mopeds. We also found some great local places to eat by just going one road back from the waterfront away from the touristy area.

We didn’t get to explore too much of Cat Ba Island itself, the day we had pencilled in for hiring a moped and exploring turned out to be raining. Not fancying getting wet and still a bit nervous after my moped accident in Phou Quoc we decided it wasn’t the optimum day to get back on a bike. Instead we walked along the coast checking out the little beaches and stopping for coffees and fruit shakes every so often.

Cat Ba

Luck was on our side though for our trip to Halong Bay. Although it can be notoriously foggy in March we had a fog free day which was great. We could see the limestone formations rising out of the water in their full glory without any annoying mist obscuring the view.

Halong Bay Halong Bay Halong Bay

We also were in luck again as we had a great crowd of people to hang out with for the day, much like the week before at the caves. This is us mucking aroun, our smiles are us trying to pretend it was nice and warm in the water and that we hadn’t all let out an involuntary yelp when jumping in from the coldness of the water!

Halong Bay

We spent the day cruising around the bay, kayaking through caves into smaller secluded bays, swimming and being chased by monkeys on Monkey Island.

Halong Bay Halong Bay Halong Bay

The monkeys were truly terrifying, they have no fear of people and if you get too close they have no hesitation of baring their pointy teeth as they run at you. If you have food with you, say goodbye to it as a monkey will confiscate from you pretty quickly. I hung back and watched from the safety of the beach while the others played monkey roulette. I didn’t fancy having to get a rabies shot! These monkeys may look cute in these photos, but don’t let their looks deceive you.

Monkey Island Monkey Island

And then that was it. Our time in Cat Ba and in Vietnam was over. We had to make our way to Hanoi to catch our flight to Bangkok. Despite spending nearly two months in the country there was loads we missed. Sappa sounded amazing but we had run out of time. We had spent so long lingering in the south we hadn’t allowed enough time to do the north justice. Not that we regret it of course, we had an amazing time and as we have learnt on this trip it isn’t possible to see and do everything. It is much better to take it slowly and see what you do see properly.

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Phong Nha National Park

Paradise Cave

As so often happens on this trip we meet people who give us tips about places to go and visit. Phong Nha National Park was one of these tips, it wasn’t even on our radar until speaking to other travellers. And what a good tip it was! The park is home to some pretty awesome caves, far more spectacular than Kong Lor Cave in Laos.

We chose to visit Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Our budget didn’t really stretch to the other caves, there is one you can visit which costs thousands of dollars!!

First up was Paradise Cave. “Wow” is the only way I can describe it! It was massive, you can fit skyscrapers in it and it goes on for miles. We were only allowed in for the first kilometre, but that first kilometre was pretty special. Stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, some tinged with red, some with yellow and some with black where iron, silicon and carbon had mixed with the calcium carbonate.

Paradise Cave

We started to play the game of spotting shapes in the rocks. There was the Monty Python foot:

Paradise Cave

 

Bertie Bassett:

Paradise Cave

And the baby elephant (kind of):

Paradise cave

Next up was Dark Cave. We weren’t too sure what to expect other than it would be dark, obviously, and it involved a zip wire and mud. I have zero photos of this, I knew enough that my camera wouldn’t last the day if it came with me!

First up we had to get kitted up into a safety harness before being hooked onto the zip wire to cross the river where the entrance to the cave was. Zipwiring in you swimwear is a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but the view of the turquoise water of the river below was enough to distract me. Once unhooked it was a short swim to the boardwalk which takes you into the cave.

Then we waded through some more water before taking a narrow passageway to the right that gradually got muddier and muddier. Soon the mud was ankle deep and there were squeals of laughter as everyone negotiated their way over rocks and down “slides” into pools of mud. All this was lit by the lamps on our hard hats giving it a surreal glow.

The last “slide” deposited you in waist deep mud. We were warned not to get it in our eyes. I did a great job, slid down, stood and then promptly fell over with flailing arms splashing mud all over myself including in my mouth, and yup you guessed it, my eyes. Fortunately no ill effects have come from this! The mud, for the record, tastes horrible. This trip has made me realise that I might be a tad clumsy…

Once we were all in we were told to sit down. Lowering myself into the cool mud I realised I was floating! It was just like being in the Dead Sea, but colder.

After retracing our steps we got to wash off in the river in the cave by swimming deeper into the darkness. On the way back we were all told to switch off our headlamps and swim. It was eerie, but awesome swimming towards the pale light coming in from the cave entrance.

Last up was our return to the outside world via a kayak and then a trip on another zipwire which deposits you in the river below, crazy, but fun!

We were really lucky with our group for the day, everyone got on really well and encouraged each other through the tricky bits. This is us post Dark Cave and de-mudded.


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Working our way up the coast

Danang Lifeguard and boat

After Dalat our next stop was Nha Trang. Our arrival in Nha Trang was timed just before the arrival of the TET holiday, which is the Vietnamese lunar new year. We had heard travel could be tricky over TET because everyone goes home to visit their families making bus and train tickets hard to come by. Also we had been told that lots of businesses close over TET. Nha Trang sounded like a good choice to stay in for TET because it is mega touristy so we reckoned we would be ok getting food and accommodation. There was also the prospect of getting back into the water for scuba diving.

Unfortunately the water in Nha Trang was decidedly nippy when we went scuba diving. Both of us were shivering despite the full length wetsuits we were wearing. The fish life was also very disappointing compared to Koh Tao, so after our first day diving we decided to save our money to put towards diving when we are back in Thailand.

We filled the rest of our time in Nha Trang with a visit to Vinpearl land (a water park with some really fun slides), getting pampered in a mud bath, sampling the wares of the two craft breweries in town, going bowling and to the cinema. Bizarrely, we didn’t make it to the beach once despite that being what Nha Trang is famed for!

Once TET had arrived (I slept through the new year celebrations, oops) we decided to move on to Hoi An. Hoi An was very touristy, but it was oh so lovely too. It is a UNESCO site with Chinese and Japanese influences on the architecture.

Hoi AnHoi AnHoi AnHoi An

Hoi An is also quite possibly the culinary capital of Vietnam. So of course it was only right to do another cooking course here! The class we chose was overlooking the river and we were free to pick exactly what we wanted to make from a very extensive menu. Vietnam has the potential to make me go up a dress size, the food here is just so incredibly good!

Hoi An cooking class Hoi An cooking class Hoi An cooking class Hoi An cooking class

Dragging ourselves away from Hoi An was very difficult, but it was time to head north. We had after all been in Vietnam for over a month now and still hadn’t reached the north. We didn’t though go very far, only about 30km north to Danang for a few days of beach time before moving on to our next stop, Hue. Danang by the beach is still very quiet and undeveloped. However, the developers are moving in fast and there are signs of big resorts being built along the coast. In 5 – 10 years time I reckon it will be just as busy and just as touristy as Nha Trang. Now is the time to go to enjoy the tranquility while it is still there.

Danang

Hue was my chance to be a history geek about Vietnam’s past pre-war. This was the capital under the Nguyen dynasty who were in power from 1802 until the last emperor, Bao Dai, ceded power over to Ho Chi Minh in 1945. The Imperial City was built during this era and it was a massive complex built to house the Emperor, his wives and his concubines. Sadly very little still stands today, it was heavily damaged during the Vietnam was in 1968. What is left has been sympathetically restored and the rest has been left to crumble gracefully.

Hue citadel Hue citadel Hue citadel Hue citadel Hue citadel

The next day it was time to see where the emperors had ended up for their afterlife. The countryside around Hue is doted with imperial tombs. Each emperor oversaw the design and building of their tomb, some used them as palaces during their lifetime. We went to the Tu Doc, Minh Mang and Khai Dinh tombs. Each one was very different and each one was spectacular in its own way.

Khai Dinh was smaller but much grander than the others.

Khai Dinh Tomb Khai Dinh Tomb Khai Dinh Tomb Khai Dinh Tomb

Minh Mang was set in an ornate garden which felt like a country home in the UK.

Minh Mang Tomb Minh Mang Tomb Minh Mang Tomb Minh Mang Tomb

Tu Doc was much more decayed, but set around a lake with tombs for the queen as well as the Emperor

Tu Doc Tomb Tu Doc tomb Tu Doc Tomb

After Hue we finally hit north Vietnam! We were feeling really lazy so when our hotel in Hue suggested a private car to the next stop with a tour of the Demiliterised Zone (DMZ) thrown in we jumped at the chance. A door to door transfer with some sightseeing thrown in, what’s not to like about that!

Tank in the DMZ zone

The best bit was getting to see the Vinh Moc tunnels. These tunnels were made to house the villagers of Vinh Moc which lay just north of the DMZ. This area was heavily bombed by the US during the war forcing the villagers to seek shelter in the tunnels. It was quite eerie exploring the tunnels, unlike the Cu Chi tunnels these tunnels were really quiet we were the only tourists there. It was incredible to think that 600 people lived down here.

Vinh Moc tunnel maternity room Vinh Moc Tunnel

After over a month in Vietnam we had finally reached the north! Next stop Phong Nha National Park.

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Dalat

Dalat

We arrived in Dalat in the early evening, getting off the bus we noticed the chill in the air. We shivered as we walked around, this was crazy as it was still 24°C. We have become so accustomed to the warm temperatures in South East Asia that even 24°C seemed cold. God knows how we will cope when we arrive back in the UK in April!

Dalat is in the central highlands of Vietnam; its height means that at night the temperature drops quickly in evening to overnight lows of 20°C with day time highs of 29°C.

The roadside approaching the town was beautifully decorated with cherry blossom trees in full bloom and among them were market stalls selling flowers for decorating houses for the approaching lunar new year festival.

There are a number of small tourist sites in Dalat. These are pleasant and well worth seeing but there are not any major attractions.

The sites we visited included the ‘crazy house’. This is a hotel/building designed by a crazy architect it looks a Disney designed hotel which is interesting, different and fun.

Crazy House

We also visited the historic railway station. A tourist train service runs between Dalat and a small village containing a beautiful temple.

After arriving at the station, we looked at the train schedule: We had arrived 30 minutes after one of the four daily scheduled services had left and it would be an hour and half until the next departure. We had a drink and read our books in a cafe inside a converted rail car.

An hour later we went to buy tickets. At the counter we found out that the timetable only applies if they have a large group booked.

On the way out we were approached by a smiley Russian called Lila. Lila had managed to get more information from the ticket seller and explained that the train required a minimum of 20 people to run. A quick glance around station showed there was at least 30 people inside the station; so we approached each of the tourists and checked if they wanted to do the train trip. It seemed illogical to come to the tourist train station and not take part in the trip advertised but at least 4 people just wanted to look at the historic station; this left more than minimum number wanting the train. The ticket seller then sold the tickets, as requested, but looked a bit put out at having to do 5 minutes of work by selling the tickets.

The train departed about 30 minutes later with between 30 and 40 people onboard. The train journey was pleasant and the temple in the village was fantastic, we had just enough time to look around the temple before getting back on board to head back.

Dalat: historic train Dalat: historic train Dalat temple

The penultimate activity in Dalat was the exciting and highly recommend canyoning trip.

The final activity was a cooking class. It is always interesting to understand how local food is prepared. The food we prepared was very tasty including a lemon grass curry, betel leaf wraps, fresh spring rolls and a fresh fruit shake.

Fruit shake made by us

Dalat turned out be a great destination and well worth visiting as it is very different to the coastal towns of Vietnam.

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