I wrote this post while sitting on a bus from Ben Tre to Can Tho in the Mekong delta. Rain is pouring and we’ve stopped at the beginning of this journey to load at least 2 dozen boxes of stuff. There are also two woven handbags with live chickens, who I’m surprised aren’t more agitated in a dark confined space. Have I mentioned that the buses in Vietnam also double as delivery vehicles? Lucky for us, there’s A/C.
So we spent three weeks in Northern Vietnam based in Hanoi. M had enough Hilton points that we could stay there for free, and it was a great launching point for checking out the beautiful landscapes in the region.
But this post is about the next part of Vietnam we saw.
We did this via the local night train. There’s a significant distinction in quality between the local and express trains; more on that later. Tickets were 1.5 million Dong for 2, or about $65 USD. The train left at 7:30 pm and we arrived in Da Nang at around 5:30 am. Though food was served on the train, our online research told us that it wasn’t very good so we opted to bring a few banh mi on board, which cost about $4. Bonus: we picked up a bag of Munchies from an international food shop for $6. Treat yo’self!
The train ride was fine, though not very pleasant. It was full of locals smoking and chatting loudly, so it was basically a moving Vietnamese street experience, minus the motorbikes trying to squeeze between you and tables of people having dinner/drinking coffee/smoking cigarettes. The A/C was either blasting or off, which led to alternating between sweating and chills throughout the night. The bathroom in our car had toilet paper (hallelujah!), but only for the first couple hours. After the roll ran out, you were on your own. The custom of spraying everything down with water after you finish is alive and well here. There was a dirty mop hanging in the corner that the employees would “dry” the floor off with. All the surfaces of the bathroom looked like they could use a good power washing.
Each berth has 4 beds, which were fine comfort-wise. The bottom bunks are definitely better because they offer more head room to sit and chill when you’re not sleeping and also a table to set your things. I never felt unsafe sleeping with two strangers, though for Western standards there wasn’t much sense of personal space.
A beach town/the Vietnamese government’s pet city, it was an unremarkable experience for us. It was raining the two days we were there, and I was recovering from a cold that started on the train. The locals seemed to enjoy early morning swims. This is also where we watched the 2016 US presidential election results go down, which gave it a bit of an otherworldly experience for me.
Da Nang–>Hoi An:
Since I wasn’t quite at 100% yet, we took a cab directly to our homestay in Hoi An. A comfortable 30 minute ride for 300k Dong ($15 USD).
Many travelers we met spoke highly of Hoi An. Known for their UNESCO-grade Ancient Town, the city had its architectural and historical charms and was veer foreigner friendly. A little to touristy for our taste, but it was nice that more of the locals understood English. The town is also known for custom made clothes and accessories, and I got a tailored cotton dress at Bibi Silk for $35. Pretty damn good. I was going to get a bridesmaids dress made there, but they didn’t have the colors I needed. M got a custom made leather iPad case at Friendly Leather Bags for $38. He was very happy with their work. Both of our pieces took about a day to make, which was great for our travel schedule.
The place we stayed at, Pham Gia Boutique Homestay, was very nice and reasonably priced (though I paid with travel points). We had a big room with a sizable private balcony and hot showers. Breakfast was great: eggs your way and fresh baguette or toast, and plenty of fresh local fruit. Drip coffee and Lipton tea was also available, which is pretty standard in Vietnam.
We backtracked and took a bus back up north to Hue. Because there’s no train station in Hoi An, going back to Hue allowed us to take the train directly to Ho Chi Minh City afterwards.
The bus was arranged at one of the many travel agents in Hoi An. Tickets were 100k Dong or about $5 USD each. They picked us up by motorbike from our homestay and took us to the bus station, where we boarded a pretty standard bus. The ticket guy pushed us foreigners to the back of the bus and seated the locals up front, which is apparently not uncommon but it was the only time I personally experienced it here. It was a smooth ride.
Hue was cool for a launching point to the Vinh Moc tunnels, a series of tunnels the Vietnamese people made and lived in during the Vietnam War. We stayed at Hue Serene Palace Hotel, a highly rated hotel on Trip Advisor (paid with points again) that was located in an alley right by all the bars and restaurants. This was the first city where motorbike taxi drivers openly solicited us for weed, and we soon found out why: there’s a decent party scene here, with many restaurants and bars turning into clubs after dark. Promoters stood outside waving over groups of girls, and buses of young backpackers got off in front of the restaurant we were at and joined the river of imbibing foreigners. We had a drink at the aptly named DMZ Bar after dinner, complete with camouflage furniture and grenades used as trim.
We visited The Citadel, another UNESCO World Heritage Site (how many are there in Vietnam??) and enjoyed the Chinese architecture and ponds of colorful fish.
Our main attraction was the Vinh Moc tunnels, about 100 km north of Hue. We rented a motorbike for $20 and took turns driving there and back. The drive itself was an adventure; it was our first time driving in Vietnam. It was exciting, exhausting, and we saw some breathtaking views of the countryside and the ocean. The back seat was pretty uncomfortable after 15 minutes, so we switched off driving. Other than Hue, there wasn’t much traffic, though it became clear that roads here are used for more than transportation. It’s where life happens: people taking a stroll, children play, dogs and chickens and cows hang out, rice is laid out to dry, snacks and drinks are sold, coffee is had. A way more happening place than a busy Manhattan street.
The tunnels are a must see. It’s 40k Dong/$2 USD per ticket and includes a small museum with photos from the war and a map of the tunnels. It includes a guided tour of part of the tunnels too. Our guide was a friendly guy in his early 30s who didn’t understand much English but knew enough to point out the different uses of each part: bedroom, kitchen, meeting room, ventilation, toilet, hospital. Most of the tunnel requires ducking, and some parts were wet and a bit slippery. But it was pretty awesome to see how people survived the war.
We had lunch afterwards at the little food shop before the entrance. They had instant noodles jazzed up with veggies and your protein of choice (beef or egg), which held us over just find for the 3+ hour ride back to Hue.
That wraps up part II! The third and final part to Vietnam will be Saigon and the Mekong delta. We are leaving tomorrow on a 4-5 hour ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, so there will be down time to write. Woohoo!