Trip: After watching the Vietnam episode of Top Gear a plan started to form in my head. The initial idea was simple. Get a bike and ride Vietnam North/South in the span of three weeks. This idea of crazy biking adventure (especially for someone with no biking experience) vanished the moment I received the wonderful news of having a travel buddy for the entirety of the trip :). Therefore, the final plan… there was no final plan (other than the fact that the trip suddenly did not include any biking). We planned the first four days of the trip and after that had only a purpose in mind: “Have fun and discover as much of Vietnam as reasonably possible in the three weeks that we had”.
Hanoi: As much as cities usually don’t appear as highlights in my journeys, Hanoi was spectacular. The old quarter had slightly muted but very homely feel to it, with the typical tiny / garage like dinners peppering the streets with their tiny plastic tables and stools. Granted the odd cockroach was present here and there and rats wondered about, but as long as you treated them as omnipresent pets (not pest) you were fine and enjoying yourself :). While days were hectic with the bustling streets and traffic being the main attraction, the nights were slightly muted (for what one would expect from a countries capital night life) but very welcoming.
Ha Long: We have decided to spend a night in Ha Long City. A rather strange town giving its name to a famous bay nearby. The city was mostly empty and under incredible amount of construction. We had no idea how significant of a construction project the whole area currently is / experiences. We took a leisurely walk down to the coast only to arrive to what was well-manicured park. Walking through we were approached by a uniformed “guide” who inquired whether we came to experience their newly opened cabin ride. What cabin ride? … It was a surreal experience being the only two guests in a theme park still under construction. But we had a constant following of two to three guides, so we didn’t feel alone :).
Ha Long Bay: A three-day long bay cruise was upon us and our expectations of crystal clear water and breath-taking nature presented a tall order. Google images failed us :) and raised the bar of our expectations so high that the green and polluted water and nature obscured by myriads of other tourist boats came as a harsh disappointment. But we decided to ditch our expectations and enjoy the trip as it was. And it was just fine. We kayaked through a cave and on to a deserted beach, we visited a pearl farm and enjoyed drinks on the sun deck of our cruise ship. The cabin was very nice and offered a nice view of the night Bay as well – life could have most definitely been much worse :).
Ha Giang: We moved up north (this time via a night bus), with only a notion of what we might do up there. As luck would have it we met Britney (a shy girl from Texas) on the bus and Thai (local tour guide and a nice fellow) shortly after our arrival to Ha Giang. We quickly made a mutually favorable deal and decided to grab a pair of bikes and do a two-day northerly loop. Wow! Words cannot describe what we saw and what we experienced. Riding a bike in Vietnam is easily the best mode of transportation, with your (ass) endurance and (when meeting a truck in a sharp bend of a dirt road) fear being your only limits :). The views were magnificent, the local hardy people were awe-inspiring and the ride itself was a thing to behold. The north was easily the (read as “theeeeee”) highlight of the trip. We should have spent there week at least – in the hindsight :). Just incredible.
Mai Chau / Ninh Binh: While the terrace rice fields of north are beautiful, for most of the Vietnam they are not characteristic way of cultivating rice. Mai Chau was the right place to see the typical long stretches of green rice fields and the villagers tending to them wearing straw hats to shield them from the scorching sun and with their water buffalos in tow. Ninh Binh with its towering cliffs was often mentioned as the Ha Long Bay on land. It is a nice area which we remember for two experiences in particular. One – A vast temple complex with its fifteen-storied pagoda which provided an incredible view of the whole area. Two – Our host family, very nice people who were on a mission to teach us much about Vietnam. Dining with the family, walking by their field, even their cemetery with rich cultural heritage or tending to their young son were all the things that made us feel as part of Vietnam as nothing else had – admittedly dining has been somewhat foggy affair due to the amount of rice wine consumed :).
Hue / Hoi An: Walking through the Imperial palace of the old Imperial capital Hue was a day well spent. It was also the very first day that we experienced any sort of rain in what should have been a rainy season especially in that part of the Vietnam. The center of Hue was very nice and very friendly place. It was also by far the cleanest city that we saw and we enjoyed what was possibly the best dinner of the whole trip here (and that’s saying something since the food throughout the whole trip was simply wonderful and plentiful :)). Hoi An, the tailor capital of Vietnam is as touristy of a place as it gets. The disadvantages of being “hunted” by merchants as a “rich” tourist were offset by the great offering of bars and places available for everyone to enjoy drinks and meet fellow travelers.
Mui Ne / Ho Chi Minh City: Dessert in Vietnam? Well yeah, sort of. Mui Ne while being renowned for its few square meters of desert is mainly a long stretch of beach resorts with a great number of kite schools. The area had somewhat eerie atmosphere with its “deserted” beaches and russian translated kitting billboards hoping for even a singular customer. Ho Chi Minh City was just a short-lived affair for us as we spent a mere day and a half exploring this wondrous place. We thoroughly enjoyed its market and its “very factual” war museum but “above all” the rooftop drinks.
Vietnam: We could not have picked a better time to visit Vietnam as there were hardly any other tourists around (we had the whole of Vietnam “just to ourselves”) and we still caught the marvelous sight of green/yellow rice fields just before harvest. Admittedly we were lucky that rain avoided us as much as it possibly could. With only day and half of rain we saw how quickly streets can turn into rivers but were otherwise unaffected in our travels. We would wholeheartedly recommend Vietnam to any and all travellers. With bike being easily the recommended means of transport and absolutely no plan to follow being the best planning strategy. (Will we be going there again? Not likely but not because we didn’t enjoy ourselves, just because there is a limited pool of time and finance to tap into and we are already planning new adventures.)