Tag Archives: backpacking

Phong Nha National Park

Vietnam Top 13

1. Where not to miss:
PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK
Travelling in Vietnam is pretty easy. Since the country is quite narrow, you either go from North to South or vice versa. Many a traveller misses out on Phong Nha National Park as it is off the main thoroughfare and the train ticket route. Even if you didn’t think you liked caves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. How to get there? You can get a night bus from Hanoi, DaNang or practically any major stop off in Vietnam. Expect there to be loud Asian karaoke all night long and the chair beds to be slightly too small (for a 170cm person). Where to stay? Easy Tiger is a backpacker haven. There are also farm stays for those wishing for something quieter and away from the backpacker scene. What to do? Explore caves and cycle around.

2. Where I wish I went:
SAPA
I was in Northern Vietnam in early December, their winter. My thin leggings and hoodie were hardly cutting the 16 degrees celcius dull weather in Hanoi and Halong Bay, never mind going further north into the mountains of 4 degrees. It’s supposed to be glorious and enchanting on a good day though, which are hit and miss at that time of year. What to do? Get your own private local guide to bring you on hikes with amazing views over tea plantations.

3. Where I didn’t mind missing:
CUCHI TUNNELS
The main attraction to the Cuchi Tunnels is getting to squeeze into the tiny tunnels that were used during wartimes. As a verging claustrophobic, I was happy enough to see other friends photos and read up about them online.

4. Where I wouldn’t go again:
NHA TRANG
An unusual displaced city where all signs are also in Russian and you’ll be sure to eat in a Russian restaurant. The market wasn’t anything to write home about with cheap looking knock off sports gear.

5. Where one day is plenty:
MUI NE
Go to Mui Ne for the sand dunes and the fishing village and nothing else, unless you want to peruse the resort lifestyle where a man-made beach is erected above the beach as the tide is too close.  What to do?  Go on a half-day tour, take fabulous photos on the sand dunes and be done.

6. Where to get custom clothes made:
HOI AN
It’s pretty self-explanatory. Streets and streets are lined with shops ready to make clothes to fit only you! Where to stay? If you want to meet backpackers stay at DK’s House Backpackers. If you just happen to be there for Christmas (like I was), stay somewhere fancy and then book in for the Christmas dinner to make lots of new friends. What to do? Rent bikes to check out the beach, visit the island over the walk bridge, check out the markets and eat some great food.

7. Where to spend New Year’s Eve: 
SAIGON
A bustling city with lots of nightlife and motorbike-filled roads. Where to stay? The multistory Vietnam Inn Saigon has it’s own rooftop bar so you’ll be sure to make lots of friends and see the new years fireworks from a height. What to do? Wander the streets seeing the sights, visit the War Remnants Museum, and check out the indoor market.

8. Where to challenge yourself:
DALAT
If you see photos of someone in Vietnam with a hard hat and harnesses on then they are sure to be in Dalat. It is the must-go place to try out canyoning, ie. Abseiling down and jumping off cliffs. Even those with fears of heights, myself included, are able to muster up the courage for a day in your swimsuit. Where to stay? Dalat Family Hostel. A bit weird and cosy but you get used to it.

9: Where to find paradise:
PHU QUOC
A tranquil island off the southern end of Vietnam. What to do? Rent scooters and explore the island visiting the beaches of turquoise water, the pearl farms, and eat a fresh fish dinner at the market.

10. Where to find a Natural Wonder:
HALONG BAY
The best option is to just book a cruise trip and let them take it from there guiding you through the karst limestone island landscape. You can be lucky enough to book a cheaper trip in the winter and end up on a more expensive one because there weren’t enough people for yours (this totally happened to us).

11. Where to drink 19 cent beer on a tiny plastic stool and get an amazing Banh Me from a food cart:
HANOI
A city full of wonder. Fully grown men alike sit on those plastic chairs. Where to stay? There’s lots to choose from. Just read up the reviews to find the one that best suits you. Sometimes the backpacker ones are too party party! What to do? There is so much to do. (Another blog post coming about the wonders of Hanoi.).

12. Where to see the “real” Vietnam:
MEKONG DELTA (CAN THO)
We took the long way back to Saigon from Phu Quoc, via the Mekong Delta. The bus was squishy and the view out the window echoed the poverty of Vietnam. Rubbish lined the streets and the tin shacks (houses) lined the river. The people at a bus stop were desperate for our custom. What to do? Go to the floating markets where boats line up beside you selling their wares by holding them out on a stick. They’ll cut the pineapple up on the spot with artistic precision. Many of them live on the boats year-round, moving with the weather.

13. Where to have a unique experience:
HUE TO HOI AN MOTORBIKE TRIP
If you want to have a taste of the scooter/motorbike craze then book a motorbike with a company in Hue or vice versa. They allow a rental one-way and take your luggage for you and deposit at your destination. If you want to live by the rules or are too nervous to drive, get an Easy Driver to drive you instead. Be prepared to see wonderful sights, but to also drive through a day of rain (if it’s winter), lose your travel mates after the first hour, and breakdown on top of mountains thus relying on the generosity of non-English speaking locals to help you out (yes, this happened…TWICE!).

*HANDY INFO ABOUT VIETNAM*
Hostel Rules
It was in DaNang that I found out about the strict hostel rules in Vietnam. In every hostel you hand in your passport and don’t receive it back until you leave. At first it seems daunting as it is your gateway to the rest of the world but you gently become accustomed to it and are glad you don’t need to worry about where it is at all times. All that will happen is you will leave the country with a passport cover full of small stickers with all the dorm room numbers you stayed in. The reason they take your passport is that they need to have all foreigners accounted for and send a list to the police every night.

You will also find Vietnamese hostels stricter in their rules about guests only allowed on the premises. There are hefty fines (5,000,000 vdn) so best to stay where your friends are staying if you want to chill at your hostel.

Winter Weather
If you go to the North of Vietnam in winter you are going to be cold. That’s if you’ve come from hot sunny climes and don’t have appropriate clothing. There are always cheap Northface knock-offs you can buy in Hanoi but not ideal if you’re on a budget and don’t want to drag winter clothes around with you in your rucksack for another few months.

Where to start your trip from
Vietnam is pretty easy to travel around. You either go from North to South or vice versa. North to South suited me better as Cambodia would be my next stop. A rare flight while backpacking is perfectly acceptable, especially if it will save time. Vietnam Airlines was a glorious, roomy, clean experience and at 60 euro one-way from DaNang in central Vietnam to Hanoi in the North, it wasn’t bad.

Package Holidays
Be prepared for Western hostel workers to plug every package trip going and dodge as many as you can. Though you’ll find Halong Bay can be a whole lot easier if you book with an agency. Still avoid booking with your pushy hostel unless booze cruises are you thing and you don’t want the full experience of backpacking because they organise everything for you.

All information as of 8 January 2015.

Charlie and the Loopers

(Also known as “The Trip of a Lifetime!”)

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The map we received to embark on the Tha Khaek Loop. We were dubious at first but it did the job.

Getting to Tha Khaek
It was a hot daytime ride from the capital, Vientiane, to Tha Khaek in central Laos. Myself and Orna were joined by Ecuadorian Janeth, and Englishman Charlie on the seven hour journey that isn’t on the main tourist trail. Aboard the local bus one would never fear hunger as at numerous points along the road locals hopped on and sold their wares of chewing gum, fruit in plastic bags, water and pastries. It felt like a human zoo as everyone shouted and hung goods in my face. The toilet break didn’t even bring us to a dingy restaurant with squatters. We stopped by the side of the road, men on one side, women in the bushes on the other. It was open air squatting among mountains of tissue from previous users!

When we eventually arrived at the bus station it seemed as if the tuk tuk drivers weren’t bothered getting any work. It was bizarre. Eventually eight of us squashed into one tuk tuk, big rucksacks and all. We stayed in the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, read of past experiences of previous Loopers in the log book and sang songs over an open campfire.

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My 3 Amigos

Our outfits to get into the Buddah cave

Our outfits to get into the Buddah cave

Sunset at Tha Lang Village

Sunset at Tha Lang Village

Day 1 – The Road to Hello (Sabaidee)
After trying to source ourselves some automatic motorbikes, we eventually set off with small school bags of provisions for our four-day adventure. The views were just glorious, travelling through karst mountains with the wind blowing through our hair (beneath our helmets of course). There was little traffic so we had the road to ourselves with Charlie taking the lead on the semi-automatic bike. We did the 10km dusty, bumpy ride to and from the Buddah Cave­­. Despite having trousers on, Janeth was forced to rent a wrap skirt. Charlie tried frog on a stick afterwards as we sat down and drank coconut water (in a carton!). As the sun began to set, we arrived at the small village of Sabaidee. It was just magical as we watched the sun fall below the horizon across a lake. The colours were a spectacular end to a long day of wondrous driving. We had a dorm to ourselves and fell asleep to the sound of a fan so big it seemed about to take off!

The dusty road from Tha Lang Village to Lak Sao

The dusty road from Tha Lang Village to Lak Sao

Away they go!

Away they go!

Day 2 – The Dusty Way
Face masks in tow, we set off on what was to be the most challenging day – 20km of red dirt road. As we bumped along I couldn’t help but laugh to myself about how the red, rocky, narrow (at times) road was the main road around that part of the loop. The earth cast off a brilliant orange/red glow full of life and energy, and was paired perfectly with the odd occurrence of green foliage as a backdrop. I loved bumping and maneuvering over the challenging landscape, much more than going 70km down a main road. By the time we stopped for lunch in Lak Sao (where everyone says not to stay overnight), I had a fantastic tan of orange dust.

View of Kuon Kharn

View of Kuon Kharn

It was beautiful and heart-warming to travel through small, dusty villages and have children shout “Sabaidee” in delight at the tourists that they hardly ever see. We took a few wrong turns but eventually made it to the village of Kuon Kharn and stayed in a luxurious room with two double beds for 2.50 euro each. Disaster struck when I couldn’t work the shower and got locked outside of our room for about an hour. Covered in dust and dirt, a hot shower was all I needed. Meanwhile the three others were content to remain manky for a while longer. The concentration of the day had me exhausted and I balled like a baby until I got help!

Houses along the quiet road to Konglor Cave

Houses along the quiet road to Konglor Cave

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Charlie up ahead

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The chicken coup by our lodgings for the night.

Day 3 – Konglor Cave
We made the easy, calming, glorious secluded ride to Konglor Cave. We passed small clutterings of ramshackle houses along a road surrounded by fields. The pure serenity and enjoyment as we glided along was astounding. Each of us in our own world as we took in the sights, sounds, and smells.

The cave itself was an experience. One hour one way in the dark on a little canoe with head torches was how it happened. The boat trip was exciting, scary and anxiety-wrenching, especially as we had to evacuate the canoe momentarily so that it could be sent up the current. Later a  foreign man looked at me in disbelief as I made myself a crisp sandwich! We ended the journey with a dip in the river, fooling around like children let out for their summer holidays!

That evening we went in search of a homestay. We followed a man who got us to follow another man. He led us up a stairs to his wooden house on stilts that was to be home for the night. The four travellers sat cross-legged on the floor around a tiny round metal table to a dinner of sticky rice in a wooden basket with green vegetables and egg. Afterwards we were joined by the man of the house (grandfather), his wife and two daughters and their five children combined. The evening of sitting on the wooden floor with thin mats was a complete Laotian experience. The grandmother, whose back was so bent, probably from years on the rice fields, helped the girls with their homework and was able to chat a little with us. We tried our best to communicate with the few words we were given on the back of our hand-drawn map but used universal gestures as well as games to communicate with the glowing, smiling children. “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” went down a treat, as did “Down By the River” and other clapping games. I felt humbled to be welcomed into their home. That night we went to bed at 10pm on thin mattresses laid side by side on the floor, with small hard pillows and one mosquito net over us all. We went to sleep  to the sounds of cocks beneath us and were woken up the same way.

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Day 4 – The Road Home (The Last Leg)
Breakfast at 6.30am was the same as dinner the night before. We said our goodbyes and hit the road at 7.40am. We retraced our steps down the beautiful barren road. At times we stumbled upon children walking, cycling, motorbiking or on buses on their way to school. Some waved and giggled while others were too cool to salute! Some grannies waved us on our way while a young boy of about four was work-bound with his mother and a shovel in tow. The long highway home was more about testing our speed skills rather than seeing many sights but our stop off for a noodle soup was delicious. There was only one or two choices for food so not hard to pick!

We made it back to Tha Khaek and the Travel Lodge. As the dust began to settle we devoured all food in sight and talked about the amazing adventure we had just completed, the one that made a big stamp in our hearts.

Our Travel Entry

Packing the bags

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I’m going on an adventure. A four-month trip through South East Asia will see me land in Melbourne, Australia. Myself and my travel buddies have planned as little as possible in advance so we can let the spontaneity thrive. It does mean that I haven’t put much thought into what I”ll do when I get to Australia or what I’ll do when, or if, I come back home.

The unknown is scary but it’s pretty exciting too. The impatience of experiences yet to have is gradually growing inside me and is waiting to burst out, or else it’s just the nerves and anxieties of leaving my home, family and friends. Let it be known…There will be tears.

4 days and counting…