Our next stop was Dong Hoi, the journey was delayed as there were works on the train tracks. Whilst this reason can be used as a distraction technique back in the UK, at the station there were three men crouched around one part of the track pulling out huge clumps of earth in a bid to lower the cement slab that was sticking up slightly. All seemed to be resolved as the men casually walked away being followed by our train in the distance.
Dong Hoi is the perfect location for the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park that houses the multitude of vast caves only recently opened up to the public. It is also has 12km of beaches filled with white sand. However, we brought the most recent storm with us, high speed winds and rain for a solid two days. This allowed us to find the charm to Dong Hoi, the quaint cafes, chilled out local lunch spots as well as the few historical items left standing after the war and also reacquaint ourselves with the cold.
The weather cleared on the third day so we hired a moped, Tim donned the ‘Hello Kitty’ helmet and we set off! The scenery was spectacular, long straight roads framed by lush green rice fields. Within the hour we had made it to the National Park and were trekking the 519 steps up to Paradise Cave. The opening to the cave was subtle, you had to duck past a hanging rock but once inside, the vastness of this underworld was staggering. Numerous wooden steps lead you down to the cave floor where simple artificial lighting highlighted the sculptures formed from minerals slowly working their way through the vast rock. A 1km walkway led you through the cave which felt longer due to the constant awe stops at the abundance of natural phenomena.
From Dong Hoi we headed up to Ha Noi. We chose to make the 11 hour train journey during the day, even with podcasts and books this one dragged slightly. We reached Ha Noi around 8pm and made our way to our hotel which was close to the main station. Ha Noi didn’t seem to hold the instant charm that Saigon sucked you in with but after exploring the old quarter we found ourselves liking this practical city.
We exited our hotel the next day and walked into a market set that was vibrant and in full flow. Food, vegetables, herbs and house hold items available at every corner and stall. The first item we locked eyes on was a table full of roasted dog, it transfixed me with horror at its existence and I couldn’t shake an underlying sad feeling for the entire day, we discussed why we found it so horrific noting that a table full of cow or pig would generally not be as upsetting. We find our mindsets are slowly entertaining the possibility that meat isn’t the be all and end all it once was in a meal.
We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The queues are phenomenally long but move so efficiently you have no cause to be disgruntled. There were the occasionally queue jumpers this stirred the British visitors into muttering comments so that everyone else bar the culprits were aware that queue jumping was not acceptable. Once inside I slowed my pace down so I could take in the sombre lighting and the body of the most revered leader in Vietnam. It was eerie as well as calming.
We choose to spend some time on Cat Ba island as opposed to going to Ha Long Bay, we had heard stories of how touristy it is and decided to steer clear. Our journey from Ha Noi to Cat Ba consisted of a coach, a boat and a coach and yet only took around 4 hours. Once on the island the undulating landscape evidenced the abundance of limestone working its way skyward.
We took a kayak out to explore the limestone karsts scattered in the South China Sea. We made our way past a floating fishing village with dogs protecting each house, one nearly flew off the end of his jetty barking us on. We found a few bays that were too shallow to allow fishing boats but were perfect for our kayak, the tranquility was heavy and heightened by the mist. Travelling around the world certainly makes it feel smaller but encountering places like this are a reminder how isolated some places still are.
The next day we hired a moped to see the harbour on the other side of the island and visit hospital cave. Both incredible spectacles but take second place after our moped accident: a dog ran out in front of us and got caught in our wheel sending us flying, luckily we weren’t travelling too quickly but the concrete was not kind on our skin, I have no news on the dog either as we were both a bit to dazed to ask after him. Incredibly a doctor was passing and cleaned our scrapes and bandaged us up. The kindness and genuine sensitivity was overwhelming and I had a little cry on our way back to the town at the generosity shown.
From Cat Ba we traveled back to Ha Noi then on to Sa Pa, this time we booked a sleeper train with the soft beds and only a four berth, no one turned up for the other two beds so we quickly locked our door and relished the spacious comfort on this seemingly busy train.
The views in Sa Pa were captivating, miles of staggered rice fields individually etched into mountain sides at every turn by local villages. This town has already worked its way onto the ‘must do’list for people visiting Vietnam, which is evident by the plethora of building sites fulfilling the increasing need for travelers exploring Sa Pa and using it as a base to explore further local villages throughout the mountains. The busyness and noise during the day detracts from what was once a sleepy mountain village. As well as nursing our moped injuries Tim contracted food poisoning, enforced days of chilling were fine by me interspersed with visits to find my daily fix of at least one bowl of Pho Bo. We extended our stay in Sa Pa to ensure Tim was ok to make the 9 hours journey back to Ha Noi. Once back in Ha Noi we visited a local restaurant that had won our favour on our initial visit and even more so this time after chatting with the lady who worked there, she got to practise her English and we learnt more about a country that we had spent the last month and a half exploring.
Our last few days away were spent in Bangkok, the main requirement when booking accommodation was a roof top pool to while away a few hours topping up our tans. Bangkok felt like the holding pattern before landing at an airport, stuck in a travelling limbo whilst we dipped in and out of eagerness and nervousness of waiting to return to the UK and starting all over.