North Vietnam. The good and the bad of mass tourism

We spent a day or two exploring Hue – the citadel really is very impressive, and there are ongoing restoration projects to try to repair the near complete destruction left over from the bombing and fighting in the American War. Time was however, not on our side and, with the tourist Meccas of Halong Bay and Sapa still to come, we pushed on up to Hanoi. It was here that Agoda sprung it’s latest surprise. There are Halong Bay tours on Agoda! Heavy discounted and last minute, and really nice! Essentially, we got a 4 star, two night, three day tour for the price of the cheapest tour you could get. It was on the Heritage Line Ginger boat, and it was superb. The food was outstanding. As in, 5 course meals kind of outstanding. Our only complaint was with the price of the alcohol, which was ludicrous, but fortunately we had predicted that and came prepared! I’ll now stop gloating about it, and let the pictures say the rest.
 A new(ish) direct overnight bus from Bai Chay to Sapa meant that we could avoid splitting up the next stage of travel in Hanoi. It even went all the way to Sapa proper, which used to be impossible in a big bus. They must have improved the roads, although you could never tell! 

The town of Sapa is, to be brutally honest, a bit of a dive. It’s heartbreaking really, as it is simply an example of tourism ruining a place. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’d go back in a heartbeat, as the surrounding scenery is stunning, but that’s in spite of the town itself, which is loud, a bit dirty and full of all the bad bits of tourism: hundreds of touts, constant hassle, lots of cheap knock off shops, and a large number of fairly average restaurants that all offer the same thing. 

The reason why Sapa is so popular is due to the trekking opportunities in the surrounding hills. Day trips are simple and rewarding; home stays in the nearby villages are easy to arrange; and the mountain of Fansipan is there for the hardcore. I do however, feel that tourism has gone too far here, and will soon ruin the very reasons why Sapa became so popular in the first place. A large number of women from the local villages follow you around all day, desperately trying to get you to buy their wares as souvenirs, or insisting on acting as guides to take you to their house in the village. The problem is that a stunningly beautiful dyed tablecloth just isn’t vastly practical for a backpacker, and what about if you wanted to not be bundled into a group and escorted along a road into the next village? Or even, heaven forbid, do some exploring on your own?? Even the challenge of Fansipan is no longer the same, as the world’s longest cable car can now take you straight to the top! I’d imagine that would take some of the elation out of a hard two day slog. 

We did, however, manage to throw off the ladies, and escape into the hills on our own for a couple of truly beautiful day treks. It was wonderful, if a little steep at points!! 

 Keep it on your list, but pray for Myanmar – I hope somewhere like Hsipaw doesn’t go the same way.


Hoi An

Hoi An gets it’s own post. It is that good. If I’m perfectly honest I’m not sure why we enjoyed it quite as much as we did. I’ve been trying to tell myself that it’s not because of the 9p beer (well… Probably 15p since Brexit), but it does add such a gloss to an already good day when you can sit down with a beer that is so cheap that you almost feel like its a crime not to drink one. Or two. 
Let’s be clear – not all beer in Hoi An is that cheap, you do have to seek it out a little bit, but not very hard. It’s called ‘fresh beer’ (or Bia Hoi everywhere else in Vietnam), and it’s a lager that is brewed that day, and has to be drunk that day. What a shame! 

The most touristy thing to do in Hoi An is to go to the tailors. It is a well publicised tradition. We went to Lana, as liked the woman inside who we had a chat with. It was also the cheapest of the top rated ones. Tom got a 4 piece suit made up (the extra pair of trousers is for the Chubb-rub) which he was particularly pleased with – even if it doesn’t leave much room for expansion due to excessive cheese eating..

The river front is charming, with lanterns lit up along the streets at night, and the famous old Japanese bridge filled with throngs of people. hundreds of restaurants make choosing just one each night quite a problem, but I would particularly recommend the Secret Garden if you are feeling in need of a treat! 

The beach isn’t far away either, an easy cycle through flat paddy fields. It is not particularly busy throughout the day, and there are plenty of sun beds to hire for a small fee (usually a beer!). In the evening it’s heaving with locals who flock out of the city.  

We had an absolutely wonderful time here, and even bestow Hoi An with the honour of being one of the (few) places we’ve been on this trip where we could see ourselves living, rather than just visiting again. Top marks.

South Vietnam

Vietnam is a huge country. Sure, it’s not in the league of Kazakhstan or Russia, or even Mongolia, but it’s still pretty big – particularly as the temptation is to try and see the whole country in one trip. We had 3 weeks, and to be honest, with any less time than that, I wouldn’t even attempt it. The most common thing that people seem to do is to split time in Vietnam into two, and usually allow about two weeks for each half. One of the main reasons for this is transport, as it takes at least two or three night buses to get from Hanoi (in the north), or Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The other reason is Hoi An. It’s about 5 hours by bus south of Hue, and is so wonderful that it must get included on a trip to the north, or a trip to the south. 
As such, we tackled the south of the country first, and slowly worked our way north.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a sensational introduction to Vietnam. By that I mean that it is a huge assault on the senses! Loud, chaotic, and teeming with people, it’s a lot of fun, provided you can get used to crossing the roads! 

We only spent a couple of days here, with the tourist regulars of the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels top of our list of things to do. Both give an extremely one sided view of the ‘American Aggressor War’, and neither hold anything back. The War Remnants Museum used to be called the ‘American War Crimes Museum’, and the exhibits haven’t changed with the rebranding. It is 3 floors of photographs and information of the horrors of war, including a large section on chemical warfare, and leaves you in no doubt of who was responsible. 

 The Cu Chi tunnels (tours easily arranged from Saigon) are another one sided account of the war, and we both ended the day feeling troubled. Not, however, in the usual way that one gets after visiting a historical site of terrific human tragedy, where the overwhelming feeling is often remorse, and desperation to prevent such horrors from happening again. This time it was a sense of disappointment, tinged with disgust at the way it was presented. I didn’t get the impression that there was any regret about the loss of life on both sides, just a sense of pride at the way that the Viet Cong was able to kill as many South Vietnamese and American soldiers in the most gruesome of manners. Most memorials or battlefield sites that I’ve visited in the past try and remind you that we must do everything we can to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Here it was not like that – it more seemed like a challenge. And the on site shooting range was just crass and distasteful. 

 We’d booked on an open tourist bus, though Sinh Tourist, and it worked faultlessly, and was excellent value for money. First stop – Dalat.

High up in the hills, Dalat is steeped in French colonial influence, and has been used as a place to escape Saigon for centuries. It is mercifully cool in the day, and almost even cold at night. You definitely don’t need aircon! For those of you who’ve been struggling in the 40 degree heat, it’s paradise! The climate also lends instead perfectly to some adventure sports, with a lot of hiking, and canyoning on offer. We stayed at the Dalat Backpackers Hostel, and we honestly couldn’t recommend them highly enough. The cheap, spacious double rooms are supplemented with free breakfast, free beer (for an hour), and a free dinner, as well as a hefty discount off their canyoning tour. A great place to meet other travellers, as well as booking Easy Rider motorbike trips.

The day we spent canyoning was a definite highlight. Good quality kit, a surprisingly good emphasis on safety, and guides who also want you to have fun, all added up to a great day of abseiling, waterfalls, jump-offs and zip lining. The free beer at the end just added to it! 

Dalat is also Vietnam’s wine capital. It’s the only place in South East Asia where we’ve found wine that is remotely any good at all. True, the cheapest stuff is fairly unpalatable, but the ‘premium’ or the ‘superior’ bottles are well worth a try and not expensive (about £3-5 per bottle from the shops; double that in restaurants). 

Well worth a stop.