Visiting Hue & Driving the Hai Van Pass

The bus journey to Hue from Phong Nha was an unexpectedly long one, mainly because we were on a small mini bus, instead of the coaches we'd been on in Vietnam so far. Not to mention the blaring Vietnamese karaoke on the huge 30" tv screen at the front of the bus. Yes. Asia is a weird but wonderful place.

We quickly chucked our bags down in our guest house and headed out for some food, opting for more of a liquid dinner of draft Tiger beer and a few small plates, including some Hanoi style spring rolls which are still my favourite. We wandered around the town for a bit, getting to grips with the place. What really struck me was just how touristy Hue was, and not even just for backpackers. Hue is one of the main stops on the 'package tour' holidays due to the ancient city across the river, it's teaming with history so people flock there in their thousands, staying in the many high rise four star hotels.

By this point, we were positioned much closer to the centre of the country so the weather was thankfully getting warmer again (heaven knows how we'll cope when we actually do get back to the UK) so we set out for a day of sight seeing in the ancient city. There's lots to see here, we paid the entrance fee to go into the old royal palace and wandered around for a few hours. In all honesty, it's probably much more satisfying having a guide to tell you the facts and history of the place but because we were on a budget and being cheap, we decided against it. It was just nice walking around seeing all the old architecture and reading bits and bobs about what had happened. Sadly, a lot of the ancient city was lost through bombing during the war, but they've done a good job at keeping it all pristine and in good shape.

After a few hours in the ancient city, we headed back across the river for a bite to eat. We stopped in a couple of tour booking agencies on the way to enquire about a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, after which we did a lot of research into reviews of the tours and decided against it. For the money we would have paid, I think it was close to US$40 each, for a really long day of driving, it didn't really seem worth it - again coming down to budget.

However, we did decide that our next part of the journey we would do ourselves... Hue to Hoi An on bikes (scooters actually, because neither of us know how to ride a motorbike and weren't going to use the Vietnamese roads as practice...). After enquiring around town, we decided to go with the tour through our hotel, Hotel Stay, an excellent budget hotel, $15 a night for a double room, breakfast included and run by the friendliest bunch of staff and owners, two French brothers. Their Hue to Hoi An tour was great value for money at $25 each, we had bike rental for the day, helmets, maps and the company takes your big bags to Hoi An via car so you don't have to be massively uncomfortable riding with them all day. Perfect.

The day we set off, it was gloomy weather and starting to spit but we were in good spirits knowing we were about to do something really awesome. Having ridden bikes in Thailand, we had some good experience of how traffic flows in Asia, it was just the length of the journey we were facing... over 100km. We were hoping it would take a couple of hours, oh how wrong we were. The hotel told us how to get on the main road to Hoi An, 'turn right before the bridge then it is one straight road'. Yeah, something like that... We managed to get onto the main road and after about an hour of driving the weather was starting to get worse so we put on our anoraks, then very soon after we had to put on our plastic overalls because the rain wasn't letting up.

We were driving for a good 3-4 hours before we hit the Hai Van Pass - made famous by the Top Gear Vietnam Special and supposedly the best coastal views in the world. The road is barely used by locals anymore since a tunnel was built through the mountain to cut the journey time down by an hour or so; the only people who drive on the mountain road are tourists, and big massive oil trucks. No biggy. A quick stop for petrol and off we went. The rain wasn't really getting worse but it wasn't letting up, and it would have been worth it for the views had there been more than 10m of visibility for the WHOLE ride. We basically drove through a massive cloud and couldn't see a thing. It was freezing, we were soaking and we were still quite a way from Hoi An.

I don't have any pictures to show you just how mental this part of our journey was. At one point the visibility driving was so bad we pulled over to a cafe stopover thinking a woman was waving us down because it was unsafe to drive, because that's how it felt. Every sharp corner we took going up the mountain, we made sure to beep our horns because the massive oil and petrol tankers coming round the sharp corners towards us didn't have their lights on. So BANG out of nowhere there'd be a huge truck right in front of you with no warning.

When we got off the Hai Van Pass, it was purely motorways and dual carriage ways, and this is when the rain really hit. I'll never forget the utter terror of driving down the highway in Vietnam, only one hand steering because I was using my other hand to shield my eyes from the rain slapping and stinging me in the face. Great fun!

We eventually arrived in Hoi An, after about 6-7 hours of driving. Soaked to the bone and frozen through, with no fresh clothes to change into because our bags hadn't arrived yet. We only waited a short while for our bags in reality and thus we were able to become human again. In the end the whole journey was totally worth it, not just for the scenery, and the experience but also because of where we had finally ended up, the wonderful Hoi An.

Exploring the Caves of Phong Nha | Vietnam

When looking at the map of Vietnam, we were alarmed by the fact our next stop along the coast would be in Hue and actually quite far down the country, pretty much close to the centre. We weren't ready to venture that far south yet, knowing there was more of the North of the country to explore, so after perusing the Lonely Planet we settled on heading to Phong Nha.

Phong Nha is further in land, close to the Laos border and also home to the world's largest caves. It's truly a magical place, but also quite a dangerous one with the most unexploded ordnance per square mile in the world! The cliff faces and mountains of Phong Nha national park were blown apart by bombs during the Vietnam/American war, and you are not allowed to explore the park on your own because of safety. It's a place with a lot of history and one we knew we were going to absolutely love.

We arrived in Phong Nha at about 5am, I had booked into a homestay in the closest town, where the bus drops you off. Our homestay was full when we arrived, but our hosts gave us their beds (!!!) in the front of the property and we managed to get a few more hours shut eye before checking in properly. The village consists of one small stretch of road that is basically just hostels and a few restaurants/cafes. There's seriously not much going on, but we knew we wouldn't be sticking around after we'd visited the national park so no big issue.

We decided to book a tour to the park, instead of doing it ourselves, having not really spent the money on a tour for a while, we wanted a bit of ease and to be shown around instead of fumbling ourselves. It's nice not to have to think about all the organisation sometimes. There's lots of different experiences you can pick from, but we decided to do a day trip which took us to the botanic gardens, then to see the 'Paradise Cave' which up until 2009 was thought to be the largest cave in the world, stretching 35km long, if my memory serves me correctly. If you're wondering where the actual largest cave in the world is, well it's next door. That's why this area is so special because so little is known about it, it's so untouched and undiscovered. Anyway, we walked up and up and up the side of a cliff face, to reach the entrance of Paradise Cave - named as such because it really is magical in there, the lighting compliments the structures beautifully and it's quite something to behold, especially when you think about how long the caves have been there, developing over hundreds of thousands of years.

After a walk through the first kilometre through the cave and back, it was time for lunch. We sat and made rice paper rolls in big groups which gave us all a good chance to swap travelling stories and have a good chat. I was conscious not to eat too much as we knew that after lunch wed be zip lining across the most vibrant, bright blue, jewel coloured lake into the Dark Cave, which we had to swim to and then get into the most ridiculous mud bath ever. When swimming to the cave, I thought the water would be opaque but it was the clearest water I've ever been in. And ready with our tunneling hard hats, we entered the cave. It was in all honesty a claustrophobic nightmare, squeezing through tight walls that as we ventured deeper and deeper through, got more and more slippery with mud. It sounds disgusting, and it was but because of the natural minerals of the mountains, it was pure and clean mud with no smell. We eventually got to what I can only describe as an opening that looked like it had tons and tons of melted Dairy Milk, so thick you could sit in it and not sink. It was quite an experience.

On the way out we slithered over to a mud slide that ended up in one of the pools where we could clean off and head back out and canoe back round to where we first zip lined across the water. This was all rounded off with a celebratory beer on the coach back to town. And you can bet we slept like absolute rocks that night after chowing down on some good grub at the Bamboo Cafe, which was next door to our homestay. Seriously good Vietnamese food, washed down with a couple of Bia Hanois.

We left the next day to head to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam to continue our journey south, where it was quite quickly getting warmer and sadly getting harder to eat bowls of boiling hot Pho.

Trekking in Sapa | Vietnam

With eight days in Vietnam's bustling capital under our belt, getting stuck into the cuisine and trying to get used to that traffic (!) we were ready to spread our wings. Two of the most popular jumping points from Hanoi are cruising through Ha Long Bay (and Cat Ba Island) and trekking in Sapa; we very much had intentions of doing both trips. But bearing in mind the weather in Hanoi left much to be desired, and want of some thicker clothing, we were struggling to decide. The cruise trips to Ha Long Bay didn't really seem to suit the current weather, it was raining, cold, overcast and quite foggy so we essentially decided that we'd give it a miss on that basis. I love me some limestone crags but if I can't see them and the water in the bay is freezing, it's probably not going to be the best experience. But then whisperings of the current temperature in Sapa (north of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border) being 4c amongst the backpackers in the Old Quarter was enough to give you a cold just thinking about it.

Eventually we decided to brave it and soon found ourselves on an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the nearest train station to Sapa town. Having done multiple buses and trains and minibuses and taxis by this point, we weren't expecting much for this journey, but we were pleasantly surprised when we saw the wooden train carriage had a little table and lampshade. It was all very twee and actually very comfortable. We arrived at 6am and jumped straight into a minibus for a further 1 hour. The bus dropped us in the centre of town and it was FREEZING. Like seriously winter cold. We quickly huddled into a hole in the wall and had a massive hot steaming bowl of chicken pho. Never had soup been so well received in all of the history of the world. We decided to recoup in a hotel while we caught up on some sleep and er, defrosted so we could approach some trekking the next day having rested well.

We'd heard along the road that the best experience you can get in Sapa is not by booking a trekking and homestay tour but by basically seeking the experience out yourself and swerving the tour companies. Lonely Planet advises against it, because apparently not everyone is licensed... but I can't think of a time when anyone ever has needed a license to allow people to stay in their own home. I was a little dubious, not wanting to get in trouble or anything but we stuck to our guns and bypassed the tour operators.

So how did we go about finding one of the hill tribe women that would guide us through the mountains, and who exactly were we looking for? Why were we even here? People go to Sapa for the stunning scenery through the mountains just on the border to China. There are hill tribes and villages throughout the valleys of the mountains, a few kms outside of Sapa town and the women of the villages come into town to pick up tourists and sell their wares daily. It's a big tourist trade, some people go for day treks, some for a few days worth of trekking and some for homestays. So after a nap, we went into town to find a woman. It was scary. And we didn't know what we were doing, like at all, but as we gazed over to the mountains the most lovely woman made her way towards us for a chat. With impeccable English, Xao, asked if we wanted to go trekking so we said yes, and asked if we could do a homestay and she said yes, and as quickly as the conversation started it was over - we'd arranged to meet the next morning at 9:30am to start our day of trekking. All she had was our word that we would be there, so she gave us a woven bracelet each which I guess was a kind of incentive to make sure we came back.

Bright and early we set off to meet Xao, after another hearty and bone-warming bowl of Pho to set us up for a day of walking. Although I don't think we really realised quite how much walking would be involved. And the relief of making the decision to leave our main bags at the guesthouse we stayed at became immediately apparent, because the sun was OUT. Clear blue skies and 26c - we were sweltering within the first 10 minutes. As we traversed, because that really is the best way to describe it, through the valley, through tiny winding, rocky paths, down slopes, and literally on the edge of rice terraces, we took in our surroundings and chatted with our guide. We ended up walking for six hours with a mere 30 minute stop for lunch. So you can believe me when I tell you that by the time we reached our guide's village Lao Chai, we were knackered. Shay and I discussed it and we definitely walked over 10k, perhaps even 15k, and yes, we ached all over at the end. We stayed in our guide's cousin's house, complete with it's own vegetable patch and a group of cheeky, inquisitive and insanely intelligent children.

Shay and I showered and settled in by watching the sun set over the mountains - at which point the temperature promptly plummeted so that we could see our breath, quite a difference from the day we had, clambering through the valley in the heat. Our host recruited us to help pick veggies for dinner from the garden followed by prepping the various parts of dinner, including but not limited to stir fried runner beans, fried spring rolls, ginger chicken and beef and green pepper. When the food was ready and we sat down together - Xao, our host, about 6 children, Shay, myself and a lovely Dutch girl staying there as well, we were treated to a shot of home brew rice wine before our meal which we shared with the adults. After a quick prayer - the family we were with were practising Catholics - we dug in, with a small individual bowl of rice, the etiquette was to just reach over and take whatever bit of food you wanted, a way in which we've never eaten before and we pretty much ate until the food was gone. It was great and so nice to be treated like family at the table as we laughed and ate together - a true homestay experience. After dinner, it was sprung on us that we'd be babysitting for our host and her husband, while they popped into town for an hour or so. Quite daunting, especially with you know, the language barrier and all but the kids were all keen to show off their English skills by singing us songs and writing their names on paper for us. The best bit however had to be seeing how engrossed they were when we showed them all our pictures on instagram, which provided us a good hour of entertainment but before long it was bed time, although we were definitely more tired than the kids, and we settled into bed ready for our trek the next day back to Sapa.

After the arduous 10-15km hike the day before, Shay and I were keen to take a less demanding walk, and so Xao obliged, taking us on the quicker 6km steep uphill walk back to town. And although it was very steep the ease of walking on road allowed us to keep our eyes off the ground and on the stunning scenery. And it was at a stop point where we took a break that I became truly speechless at everything I was seeing, with my own eyes. I hope I never ever forget that feeling of awe and wonderment.

The walk back still took us a couple of hours but it was calm and serene and just beautiful. Upon waving Xao goodbye, we headed back to our guesthouse to retrieve our bags and get some well-earned sleep in the electric-blanket covered beds before booking a bus back to Hanoi for the next day to really begin our journey travelling down the length of Vietnam. Our trip to Sapa was definitely one of my highlights of the whole trip, it was worth all the effort of getting there and the frightening night time temperatures just to see those mountains.

Just as a side note, we paid US $20 each for a day of trekking and our homestay plus a tip. I believe tours through companies cost the same, but this way the money goes directly to the people.

Still Here!

Hello everyone, my my it's been a long time.

This is just a quick post to say hello, howdy, hi, how are you? I've missed blogging so much and reading blogs, because that's one of my favourite things to do.

So basically I still have a shed load of posts to write from our travels but just as a quick update we are now settled in Australia. Melbourne, to be exact and it's great. It's nice to not be moving around every couple of days, it's nice not living out of a bag and do you know what else is nice? Tea. Proper tea, with proper milk and also doritos and hot salsa, pasta, cooking, a soft mattress, wine (all the wine) and just home comforts in general.

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy travelling, I absolute 100% did, but it's nice being settled again ya know.

ANYWAY... that's what is going on with me at the moment, I hope you're all well, now that the weather is warming up back home! Exciting.

Normal service resuming.

Eating Street in Hanoi | Vietnam

During our time in Hanoi, we sought to get a real taste of street food in Vietnam because although I already knew a couple of Vietnamese dishes, it's often hard to know what you're ordering from the hole-in-the-wall places where there is no English translation... and in all honesty, sometimes it's a little intimidating sitting down in a place where you don't know what to order, let alone the etiquette, so a street food tour seemed like the best option to throw us in at the deep end and get us acquainted with the food of a country we'd be spending the next six weeks in.

Just a little background before I go into what we ate and the tour itself, our guide Kevin was from Hanoi and grew up stomping the very streets he took us round, which meant he was able to take us to all of his personal favourite eateries as well as pushing us out of our comfort zone and very confidently nudging us to try new foods, whether we knew what they were or not - although I hasten to add we made it clear that both Shay and I wouldn't be partaking in eating any dog as it is a common meat in Vietnam and Kevin obliged, no dogs or part of dogs were consumed on our tour. But on a lighter note, as an ex-chef it was very clear how passionate Kevin was about his country's food and the fresh ingredients that go into all the dishes as well as the accessibility of good food in Vietnam. Ok. So I think I've covered everything, let's get into the tour.

Kevin first asked us if we had any allergies or if there was anything we didn't eat - not that it would really have mattered because he lives by the phrase 'never try, never know' - very wise words. He took us through a back alley of the Old Quarter first where we tried some country pancakes, or known in their Vietnamese name as Banh Xeo. They are crispy rice flour pancakes (with tumeric for the colouring) filled with beef or more commonly pork and shrimp (with the shell on dontchaknow) that are fried until golden, folded then cut into smaller sections with scissors (vital). They're served with a little bowl of nuoc cham which is basically a fish sauce based dip. You grab half a rice paper, place some lettuce and fresh Vietnamese herbs as well as cucumber and then a piece of pancake and roll it up, then you dip it, then you eat it. It's delicious and quickly became my favourite dish in Vietnam. It's hold and cold, crispy and dense whilst light and fresh at the same time - totally contradictory but it's all true.

Next we came across a cart selling cooked duck, I'm not entirely sure if it was a planned stop or if Kevin just fancied some because it looked great, but I've never had such great tasting duck before, it was so moist and just sort of melted in your mouth. I don't know how it was cooked or if it was even special but it was fab. Whilst we were at the duck stand,  a woman sat close by was just casually slicing up cooked pig's ear to be formed into a salami type sausage with mushrooms, she gave us the tinest nibble to have and looked on in awe as we tried something so normal for her, for the first time. It wasn't disgusting, but I definitely won't be going out of my way for it, it was hard and grissly, much like how you'd imagine tough cartilage to taste really, so there's that.

Then we popped passed a small bakery, where the family working were just churning out the fluffiest loaves of bread you've ever tried. Unlike the rest of Asia, bread is a common feature in Vietnam due to the French colonial influence. We tried plain bread and some small sesame seed doughnut balls as well as a 'pork roll' which was surprisingly very nice - like a savoury swiss roll with a porky gelatine instead of jam and cream... I realise I'm not really selling that at all, but you'll have to trust me on that one.

We carried on through the winding and confusing streets passed lots of herbs, vegetables and fruit, as well as a netted bag of frogs - there's that French influence again - where we tried some fried wood worms that tasted a lot like a little burst of pate in a crunchy casing. Yum. We washed our worms down with some well-needed water and a stop at a fresh fruit seller where we had the juciest clementines you've ever tried, as well as trying milk fruit, not really anything like it's namesake but still gorgeously sweet and a nice palate cleanser.

Next we hopped along to a stall where Kevin was fairly cryptic about what we were eating - sticking to his 'never try, never know' stance. Shay and I were presented with what looked like small pork patties and another fish sauce dip with chillies in, it looked like pork, it tasted like pork, was it pork? Well yes, but there was also sea worms in there. But we didn't find that out until after we'd gobbled the lot - and fair play to Kevin on that too because perception is everything and hearing the word 'sea worm' doesn't exactly induce a rumbly tummy does it?

At this point we rolled on passed the BBQ dog restaurant, merely perusing what they had on offer but not indulging. Shay did ask the question as to why dog is eaten out here and Kevin told us that it's because Vietnam was once a very poor country (and still is in parts), and people would eat whatever they can get their hands on, which you can totally understand, because at the end of the day if you're desperate, it's sustenance that could mean the difference between life and death. Although we both stood by our choice to not eat dog, it definitely gives you a different perspective on other cultures and the normality around eating every part of the animal - I guess it makes the western world look quite wasteful in that respect.

Moving swiftly on - yeah if you thought the street food tour ended there, you've got another thing coming - we came to the egg coffee cafe, which you can read about quite easily in any Vietnamese guidebook. Treated more like a dessert, egg coffee consists of the thick, bitter black Vietnamese coffee, with whipped egg and yoghurt which you mix all in together to create this wonderfully light moussey dessert, which is actually very reminiscent of tiramisu. Give me ALL the egg coffees! I went for a cold one, and Shay went for a hot one and they were both equally delicious and devoured very quickly.

Next on the agenda, and only a few doors down we stopped at a place serving snails, clams and quail eggs - but not as you know it. Whilst waiting for our food, we were served a shot of 'medicine' *ahem*. A homebrew rice wine with medicinal qualities for men... to make them strong... nudge nudge, wink wink if you know what I mean. I still had a shot ha ha ha!!! All jokes aside, it's the kind of drink that seriously puts hair on your chest, but I kinda like the culture of doing a shot to toast before the meal, maybe it's the Eastern European in me, I don't know, but Shay enjoyed it too, then again he is Irish. Our snails were promptly placed on our table so we set about pulling the bodies (?!?!) out of the shells with little metal tooth picks, we dipped them in a vibrant asian sauce and very much enjoyed them. Then the clams arrived... oh the clams. Clams have very much become one of my favourite seafood eats and these were served in this amazing pineapple infused broth again with chilli and all sorts of fresh flavours - descriptive, I know. In fact I think this might have been my favourite dish of the night. And then the quail eggs arrived. Hm. I can't knock this because it is a delicacy in Vietnam and you know, each to their own but basically, going along the same lines as the whole 'waste not, want not' way of thinking, when birds are starting to form in their eggs, namely quails, chickens and ducks, the Vietnamese boil the eggs and eat them. It's effectively a half-formed embryo and hats off to Shay here because he tried one. I chickened out - mind the pun - at the thought of it, which wasn't very 'never try, never know' of me but, I don't regret it. Shay did say however it just tasted like chicken and egg funnily enough. Like I said, I know other cultures have their delicacies and I appreciate that, I just wasn't brave enough to try it.

Now onto something a little more palatable for me, we went to Kevin's favourite place to get Bun Bo - 'Bun Bo Nam Bo'. Bun is a vermicelli noodle dish with beef or 'bo' and fresh herbs. I have actually had this before in the UK but really it doesn't compare to the real deal. Again there's so many fresh flavours going on, as well as different textures, the wet noodles and the beef then the fresh herbs, beansprouts and peanuts! It's truly fantastic and something I'd love to make at home as well.

Our penultimate dish was a bowl of Pho Bo, which shay and I shared because after three and a half hours of picking at different dishes and eating whole dishes, I was super full, as I'm sure you can imagine. I thought I wouldn't be able to eat much of the Pho, even though Kevin had assured us this was without doubt THE best place to grab a bowl of the good stuff in all of Hanoi. He was right, and we both guzzled down the lot, it was too good not to. The broth was just so clean and refreshing and full of flavour, it would have been so hard not to.

The final stop of the night was a final dessert. Kevin gave us three options, two of which were Western desserts and one Vietnamese dessert, so we opted for the latter which was a green bean porridge type thing, sweetened with fresh coconut and it was nothing like I've ever tasted before. It wasn't actually that sweet but it was definitely interesting with all the different textures. In all honesty, I probably wouldn't have it again, but I'm really glad we tried it.

And so at this point the end of our street food tour had come to an end. We were supposed to do three hours, but naturally ended up walking the streets for four hours! A whole four hours of new experiences and tastes in one of Vietnam's most vibrant cities. If you find yourself in Hanoi, I implore you to try a street food tour, not only because your belly will be grateful but you'll come away knowing a lot more about Vietnamese cuisine and feeling that much braver when placing yourself on one of those tiny stools on a street corner.