Tag Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam Round Up

With thanks to Jo for her input to this post

What photo takes you right back to Vietnam?

We had a great time moving south through Vietnam for 2 weeks with Jo and one of our favourite days was spent on scooters exploring Cat Ba Island.


Summarise Vietnam in three words.

  • Motorbikes – it seems that motorbikes and scooters keep everything moving in Vietnam. We saw them piled high with all manner of goods and carrying families of four as well as weaving around us every time we needed to cross the road.
  • Smiles – if you smile at people in Vietnam you usually get a huge grin back even if you’re say ‘no thanks’ to whatever they’re selling.
  • Bia Hoi – we tried to integrate ourselves fully with Vietnam’s culture which meant drinking a lot of fresh beer…

You really know you’re in Vietnam when…

…crossing the road. To cross the road in Vietnam you need to just step into the traffic and keep moving at a steady rate even when your instincts are screaming at you to either run or stop because there are three motorbikes heading towards you (they’ll weave around you, I promise). It’s a hard trick to master and caused many an adrenaline rush.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Vietnam?

A waterproof poncho. We had some lovely weather in Vietnam, but we got really wet plenty of times too and all of the locals had their ponchos ready for the downpours (they work well if you’re cycling or motorbiking too).

Rural Life in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

We took the Phuong Trang bus company’s coach to Can Tho and found the orange livery to be somewhat reminiscent of Easyjet (the mid trip comfort break is even at a bright orange service station!). However, the plentiful leg room, assigned seat numbers and free bottle of water indicated that its service level is a cut above the budget airline. The staff were also unfailingly helpful, from the ticket clerk who changed us onto the bus before the one we’d reserved as we arrived in plenty of time, to the security guard in the waiting room who helped us find a coffee shop in the bus station and told us when to board.

We arrived at Nguyen Shack in the early afternoon and almost immediately felt the frenetic stress of Ho Chi Minh City dissipate. The homestay/guesthouse is a 800m walk from the main road at the end of the path so there’s no traffic noise unless you count the gentle put-put of occasional passing outboard motors from the river. On arrival we were given a refreshing glass of lime juice and introduced to Theu, who originally opened the guesthouse, and her Canadian boyfriend Maxime, as well as their pets – Toto the cat, Pako and Charlie the dogs, and Bacon the diminutive Vietnamese pig – before being shown to our room, a bamboo hut on stilts with easy chairs on a balcony overlooking the river. Bliss. We unwound for a couple of hours, reading and watching small boats and large clumps of water hyacinth drift past.

20131107-175523.jpgThe Shack’s pets (clockwise from top left): Bacon enjoying a back scratch, Charlie, Pako keeping Jo company on the swing, Toto asleep in our room’s bin

20131111-174057.jpgView from our balcony

Sunset Boat Tour

At 4pm we made our way downstairs to join the sunset boat tour. As we were the only guests to have checked in so far that day we had the boat to ourselves. The boat meandered through the small river channels, past houses and under bridges. Children screamed out ‘hello’ and waved frantically to attract our attention, and adults would smile and raise a hand as they carried on with their tasks. We later learnt that English is being taught as soon as children start school so even five year olds know how to say hello and can count in English as well as Vietnamese. It was nice to be somewhere relatively untouristed where locals looked on us with curiosity rather than as moving cash machines. Drifting quietly along the waterways we didn’t feel ourselves to be intruding and it was interesting to see how integral the river is to everyday life here from fishing to laundry and bathing to transport and commerce.

20131107-175548.jpgPhom, the Shack’s friendly boat driver

20131109-084739.jpgWe think this couple were moving house, these girls were struggling to swim and wave at us at the same time!

20131107-175612.jpgAt around 5.30pm as we made our way back to the Shack the sky turned a pretty pastel pink – the promised sunset.

Markets Tour

The next morning our alarms woke us at the ungodly hour of 5am for the tour to the markets of Cai Rang. One of the main draws for tourists to the Mekong Delta are the floating markets. These are conducted entirely on the river, vendors in large boats hang out examples of what they are selling on long sticks and customers row or motor their own boats around to make their purchases while small boats selling coffee and snacks weave in and out. Most of the action takes place before the heat of the day, between 6-8am, hence the early wake up call. We were joined on this tour by a honeymooning couple from America who’d arrived late the night before.

20131111-175706.jpgLooking remarkably chipper for 5.30am, Jo, Julie, the American couple, Phom the driver and our guide

The floating market wasn’t quite what I expected. Less bustling I think. Possibly one of the reasons for this is that it’s primarily a wholesale market selling fruits and vegetables to the smaller land based vendors. Another reason, our guide explained, is that since the road network in the delta has improved it’s not really necessary to have floating markets anymore. It’s easier and cheaper for people to get about by motorbike and so the floating markets are slowly dying. Nevertheless it was an interesting sight to see the barges piled high with pineapples and watermelons, and families slurping up noodles for breakfast on their decks.

20131111-175741.jpgLong advertising poles with vegetables for sale tied on

20131111-210141.jpgAll of the boats have eyes. I’m not sure why.

20131111-210740.jpgLots of produce for sale.

20131111-210210.jpgThis lady was shopping with a huge grin on her face.

Nguyen Shack’s market tour also includes a visit to Cai Rang’s land market which, for me at least, was a much more interesting experience providing a real view into local life. It’s not just fruit and veg here but fish, meat, rice, flowers, pretty much anything a Vietnamese family might need. Not many (maybe not any) other tours visit this market so we got stared at a little bit, but that meant that people were pretty tolerant of, or maybe just bemused by, us getting in the way and taking photos of everything. Like the markets we visited in China, live fish were common. The vendors here seemed to prefer to dispatch them with a pair of scissors which seemed pretty brutal to us. Not quite as brutal as the tray of skinned frogs we saw though, after a few seconds we realised they were still alive (I’ll spare you the photos)…

20131111-212620.jpgPomelos (a kind of large grapefruit), crabs, sweet treats, courgette flowers, different types of rice, fish (I’m pretty sure these ones are dead)

20131111-212902.jpgTransaction in the fish market

Village Life Bicycling Tour

After breakfast back at the Shack we had planned to have a lazy morning and maybe a snooze but Maxime talked us into joining him and the American couple for a bicycling tour to see what local life is really about. He told us that this was his favourite of the three tours and that we wouldn’t regret it. He was right! We visited local tradesmen, factories and temples seeing a wide range of things that, as a tourist, you just don’t usually have access to. First stop was at the blacksmith working in a bamboo shack the way that blacksmiths have worked for years, the only concession to the modern age being automatic bellows to get the fire up to full heat. Next the small school, although holidays meant that there were no children there. Maxime explained that although school is compulsory it is not free and can often take up a sizeable portion of parents’ income especially if they have three or more kids.

20131111-223138.jpgBlacksmith at work, Andrew on the cycle path, distillation equipment in the rice wine factory

The rice wine factory has been owned by the same family for generations. The ‘wine’ is actually more of a spirit undergoing fermentation and then distillation and coming out at around 50% abv. Not for the faint hearted but very smooth to drink (more so than good vodka). Next was the local pagoda, a Buddhist temple with a small community of nuns who also take in orphans. The rice factory was fascinating. Rice is delivered by barge into a large silo from where it is fed into the huge machine which removes the rice husks turning it from brown to white rice, sorts out any broken pieces and bags it ready for shipment. The rice is destined for export as well as local consumption – in 2012 Vietnam was the world’s second highest exporter of rice after India.

20131111-213506.jpgCeiling of the rice factory. This is why you should always wash your rice before cooking it…

When we visited the traditional medicine doctor’s shop, Maxime related how he had used the doctor’s services once in the past year. To make his diagnosis, the doctor asked him a couple of basic questions, took his pulse and looked at his tongue before telling him the problem which was the major reason for his visit as well as about other niggles that he had. The prescribed herbs were then tailored to treat everything. Payment is on the basis of what you can afford, so the doctor’s services are accessible to even the poorest in the community unlike the Western medical services.

20131111-223523.jpgHerbs in the traditional medicine doctor’s shop

We got to have our rest in the afternoon, snoozing in hammocks in the Shack’s restaurant. In the evening Maxime and Theu invited some of their neighbours for food, rice wine and socialising. The rounds of downing shots of rice wine brought back fond memories of drinking vodka with Russian friends :).

20131111-214514.jpgA feast to end a fantastic stay.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue is Vietnam’s old Imperial Citadel. The fortified centre is similar in layout to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but as most of its population lives within the walls, it’s closer in function to Datong.

We had a bit less than 2 rainy days to explore the city and its surrounds. Besides being the old capital of Vietnam for about 80 years, it’s also famous as a site of intense fighting during the Vietnam/American War. As a result, the city was finally levelled by the USA and South Vietnamese in order to “save” it.

Imperial Citadel


Thai Hoa Palace, Hue Imperial Citadel

Like a Russian doll, Hue’s Citadel is actually three Citadels nestled inside one another, with a 30m wide moat around its outermost perimeter. Julie, Jo and I loved the intricately decorated gateways into to the self-contained complexes and residences, which we also found to be handy shelters from the frequent bouts of rain.


Julie, Jo and I in front of one of the many beautiful gateways in Hue’s Imperial Citadel


Just how beautiful you ask? How about this..

The centre-most Citadel is also known as the Forbidden Purple City and is in the process of slowly being reconstructed.


Looking out across the wide rectangular lake that takes up the northern end of the Imperial Enclosure

Our timing was pretty much impeccable all day – we’d just sat down and ordered a round of Bánh Khoái at a street corner food stall when it lashed it down. Fortunately their makeshift plastic sheeting roof kept us dry!


Bánh Khoái – a Hue specialty. Comes with different fillings (prawn or sliced meat pate) in a crispy corn taco-like shell. Very nice if a little on the greasy side!

The Royal Tombs

We’d originally thought we’d hire bicycles to visit a couple of the Royal tombs, but given the inclement weather we decided we’d hire a taxi instead. That turned out to be a fantastic decision – not only did our rain-dodging good fortune hold out as it rained while we were taxiing between the tombs, but we got to see 3 tombs instead of the 2 closest ones we thought we could reach on the bikes.

Our taxi driver took us to the Tomb of Khai Dinh first, a modestly sized hillside tomb of 5 levels in grey stone and concrete..


The entrance stairway to the Tomb of Khai Dinh

.. that is, until we got into the tomb itself on the 5th level, where we found the interior covered with the most spectacular mosaics..


Gilt bronze statue of the man himself – Khai Dinh, the penultimate emperor of Vietnam. His remains are interred 18m below his likeness

The second was the Tomb of Minh Mang, which was my favourite because it was so serene – like walking through a park. The layout of the tomb includes two lakes which are reached after ascending up to and down from 3 pavilions.


Layout of the Minh Mang tomb. Entrance is from the East (bottom of the map)


View of the Minh Lau Pavilion (which means Pavilion of Light – #8 on the map) from inside the Honour Courtyard (#5). The 3 levels of the Minh Lau Pavilion represent the heavens, the earth, and Water

We weren’t able to climb the final steps up to Minh Mang’s Sepulchre (#18 on the map) because it’s only opened one day a year on the anniversary of his death. We’d had enough of steps by then anyway, so we walked back along the lakeshore.

The final stop was the popular Tomb of Tu Duc, which the Emperor used for R&R before he died. As such, it has a lot of extra buildings to house staff during his visits, which, according to our guide book were mostly women – he had 104 wives and countless concubines!

We found it wasn’t in as good a state of repair as the other tombs we’d visited, but it did have a boating lake complete with small island that the Emperor was find of spending time on. The Emperors tomb, along with those of another Emperor and Empress are very modest compared to Khai Dinh, as they’re simple stone sarcophagi surrounded by 6 foot high walls. Of the 3, Tu Duc is the only one that isn’t actually interred here.


View of Tu Duc’s Burial Tomb enclosure. Unlike Minh Mang’s Tomb, you have to walk around the crescent-shaped lake in front


Tu Duc’s Tomb. Empty.

After a day with Emperors, we decided to eat like one at the splendid Le Jardins de la Carambole.


Vietnamese beef steak with Cafe de Paris sauce. Delicious!

When things don’t go according to plan

After Cat Ba Island we travelled to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The national park is an emerging area for tourism in Vietnam with the world’s two largest caves both having been discovered there in the past 10 years. We were all looking forward to our planned activities which went something like this:

Day 1 – arrive by overnight sleeper train from Hanoi at 07.49, hire bikes and explore the area around our guesthouse, Phong Nha Farmstay
Day 2 – take a guided tour 7km into Paradise Cave, the second largest cave in the world
Day 3 – transit to Hue through the de-militarised zone (DMZ)

Day 1

We caught our sleeper train with no problems and settled down for a good night’s sleep in our 6 berth compartment. Two of our cabin mates got off in the early hours leaving just the three of us and a Vietnamese lady. We knew that the train was not scheduled to stop for long in Dong Hoi so we got up at 7am, dressed, donned our rucksacks, refused the offer of some rice from the friendly lady and waved her goodbye to wait by the carriage door. After several minutes of standing in the corridor it was clear that we weren’t imminently arriving at the station and so we went back to sit in the compartment.

After another hour, no sign of the station and having had no breakfast we decided to investigate the offerings of the buffet car. The waiter gave us a menu but seemed keen for us to try the ‘chicken rice’ so we ordered three trays of rice with a fried drumstick and some sliced cucumber. It was pretty tasty considering it was cooked on the train and only cost 40,000 VND each (£1.20) or maybe that was just extreme hunger! The train stopped often, once for almost an hour, to let trains going north pass. We tried to work out where we were so that we could estimate our arrival time but we were never quite sure and anyway with all of the stops our speed wasn’t really consistent. Mainly we settled into reading, going through photos from the last couple of days and playing Angry Birds!

20131101-145612.jpgJo reading on the train

Eventually we picked up a little speed and pulled into Dong Hoi station. 8 hours late on what should have been a 8.75 hour journey… Fortunately our taxi transfer from the farmstay was waiting for us and we later found out that the train from the day before had arrived just a few hours ahead of ours – a mammoth 37 hours to travel the 522km from Hanoi.

20131101-145636.jpgDong Hoi station at last!

When we arrived at the farmstay there was more bad news. Due to the two typhoons and subsequent flooding which had torn through the area over the previous two weeks (also the reason for the train’s delay) there was no mains electricity. They did have a generator for lights and charging cameras, laptops and phones but it wasn’t powerful enough for air conditioning or hot water. A cold shower’s never much fun but Vietnam is warm enough that it wasn’t so bad. Much more disappointingly though, access roads into the National Park had been closed and Paradise Cave wouldn’t be open for at least another 3 days.

Oh well, we decided to drown our sorrows in a nice bottle of wine (or two) paid for with a small portion of the budget that we’d set aside for the cave tour, eat a thoroughly delicious home cooked meal, and hope that it would have stopped raining by the next morning so that at least we might be able to do a bike ride.

Day 2

We awoke to find that the flood waters, which at their height before our arrival had been lapping the top step of the house, had fallen quite far in the night. Our hopes were buoyed but the weather had other plans and during breakfast it started to rain again. Heavily. We settled in to some more reading, blogging and photo editing, and Andrew amused himself by turning the 3G dongle in the guesthouse’s laptop into a wifi hotspot so that we could check our emails.

20131101-152042.jpgLucky, one of the guesthouse dogs, a morning of heavy rain, Jo and Andrew reading on the terrace

By lunchtime cabin fever had begun to set in. The rain had eased a little so we decided to borrow bikes and head to the local noodle shop for lunch. After riding past it at first (when he said on the left after the turning onto the main road we didn’t expect it to be on the corner of the junction!) and meeting a number of locals who varied between shy smiles, shouting hello and trying to have us hold a baby, we turned around, looked more closely and were pleased to find the small restaurant empty but open. We ordered three bowls of beef noodle soup and crossed our fingers that the rain would stop so that we could explore some more local life in the afternoon.

20131101-154733.jpgCycling into the village, the noodles were worth it

After eating we convinced ourselves that the rain was getting lighter and we could head out a bit further on the bikes. Mike, the guesthouse manager, explained how to get to Phong Nha town mentioning that the first part would be very muddy and that “the bridge might be flooded but you should be able to wade through”. It sounded like an adventure!

20131101-160656.jpgFlooded fields outside the farmstay, we’re told that there are rice paddies under there somewhere…

It soon became clear that the rain definitely wasn’t going to stop. We greeted the slightly bewildered looks of locals with smiles and more than once we heard peals of laughter following us down the road from people sitting on their dry porches. I suspect that there are several Phong Nha residents who now think that foreigners are completely crazy and enjoy cycling in a downpour without the usual Vietnamese accessory of a waterproof poncho. By the time we reached ‘the bridge’ we were drenched and, faced with a raging torrent, we reluctantly turned around.

20131101-160802.jpgAndrew at ‘the bridge’

Back at the farmstay, Ben, the Aussie half of the Australian-Vietnamese couple who own the place, took pity on us and offered to drive us into town. During the short trip we saw some of the limestone karsts at the edge of the national park, met the man who discovered the world’s largest cave, and had a beer at the hostel which Ben also owns. After another delicious dinner we settled down to a Monopoly tournament with Ben, his wife Bich, his visiting friend Nathan, and Dean who works on reception. As with all games of Monopoly it dragged on for hours with plenty of friendly rivalry. Unlike most games of Monopoly I found myself in the winning position!

20131101-162001.jpgMonopoly at the Phong Nha Farmstay

Day 3

At last, something that was in our original plan! The transfer to Hue began at the slightly uncivilised hour of 7am and, after a later night than expected, we were all a little groggy but there was time to rest during the two hours that it took until our first stop at the Vinh Moc tunnels. The village of Vinh Moc was an important point in the supply line of North Vietnam during the American (Vietnam) War. Because of this the Americans bombed the area heavily to force the villagers to leave. Instead they built almost 2km of tunnels and moved the whole village underground.

20131104-091016.jpgPlan of the tunnels

Our guided visit took us through the upper levels of the tunnels (the lowest levels can only be visited in the dry season). As we crept through, not quite able to stand up, we saw the tiny niches where whole families would live, the meeting room and medical stations, including a reconstruction of the maternity area. The villagers were underground for so long, from 1966 to early 1972, that 17 babies were born inside the tunnels! Despite the Americans dropping an average of around 7 tonnes of bombs per person on the area they didn’t manage to destroy the tunnels and no villagers lost their lives. Unfortunately, our guide seemed somewhat disinterested and keen to get the visit over as quickly as possible, but despite that it was a fascinating place to see.

20131104-093559.jpgJulie just inside the tunnels, Jo at a tunnel entrance, the cramped area where families had to live

20131104-093625.jpgSome of the tunnel entrances are right next to the sea

Our second and final stop in the DMZ was at the Ben Hai River Museum. This was the border between the two halves of the country during the war and items on display include giant loudspeakers used to shout propaganda messages across the river and a huge flag tower. There was also an exhibit showing the injuries which are still happening from unexploded bombs and land mines.

20131104-095009.jpgAndrew and Julie checking for sounds from the huge loudspeaker [photo credit: Jo Harris]

20131104-095021.jpgThe Flag Tower

We arrived in Hue a couple of hours later. It wasn’t quite the stay that we’d hoped for, but it was nice to have some downtime and it whetted our appetite to visit the National Park again in a slightly less wet season.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

This is a guest post from our good friend Jo who came out to tour Vietnam with us. Take it away, Jo..

One of the things you’re Supposed To Do in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay, which has featured in several films – the one most people will probably have seen is Tomorrow Never Dies, that otherwise rather forgettable Brosnan Bond movie. It’s a vast area of tall karst (limestone) islands jutting out of the sea. It’s beautiful, and it attracts a lot of tourists. Every hotel in Hanoi advertises Ha Long tours and there are all sorts of options.

20131021-105838.jpgHa Long Bay

So we’d concluded, in doing our research, that we ought to see Ha Long Bay, but we were rather put off by the thought of hordes of tourists. However the ever-helpful Lonely Planet says that if you go to Cat Ba Island, you get to see pretty much the same scenery with far fewer people.

Cat Ba is reached through a long, but not too tedious, bus-bus-boat-bus trip which took about four hours. Our bus out of Hanoi was filled mainly with tourists, plus a few locals, and kept stopping as we left the city to cram yet more enormous parcels into the luggage lockers, deliveries for the city of Hai Phong. As we got into Hai Phong the bus stopped periodically for a very efficient off-loading of the goods. The whole thing was really well-organised, with only short waits as we transferred from one bus to another bus to the boat to another bus, and while long, it wasn’t at all tiring.

Hotpot and cannon

The town of Cat Ba is small, a bit developed and a bit touristy, but very quiet this time of year. After checking into the hostel we headed uphill for a view from Fort Cannon. Built in the 1940s by the Japanese it was then used by the French and Vietnamese. The view was a bit hazy and we felt the 50,000 dong (£1.47) charged for entry was a little steep, but we did have fun exploring the old bunkers and taking pictures of the cannon and old armament boxes.

20131021-105821.jpgDelicious seafood hotpot

Dinner in town, after a beer by the seafront, was destined to be seafood hotpot. We caved when one of the restaurant owners who’d previously talked to Julie as we got off the bus gave us his patter, and we were glad we did. We got a dish of broth flavoured with lemongrass, ginger and spring onions, some packet dried noodles, a plate of water spinach, another plate of cabbage and carrot, a plate of clams and one of fish, squid and prawns. You cook the raw food in the hot broth as it bubbles away on a hotplate. It was utterly delicious, even when a small bug jumped out of the water spinach and committed suicide in the broth – anyway, by that point we were stuffed.

Lan Ha and Ha Long Bays

In the morning we were up early for our day’s tour out to Ha Long Bay and the closer Lan Ha Bay, which has much the same sort of formations. It was a windy day – further south, we later discovered, Central Vietnam was being battered by Typhoon Nari – but we got on the boat and chugged out into the harbour. Just before we exited, through a channel between two rocks, it was starting to get a bit rough and a couple of big waves came crashing over the open bows of the boat. The pilot promptly turned around and they called for a bigger boat.

20131021-105831.jpgFishing boat coming back through the channel

Once on board the bigger boat, our group of 20 spread out on the upper deck and off we went again. She rocked and rolled for about half an hour before it got calmer and more sheltered, and about that time the scenery went from “oh, that’s nice” to “wow”. We cruised through the karsts for perhaps two hours, past floating fishing villages and waving at passing fishermen, moving from Lan Ha to Ha Long.

20131021-105900.jpgFloating village scenes

The group was a mixed one; there were a couple of Yorkshire blokes, a nice English couple, some crazy Italians, a French and Israeli couple, two German lads and a young Vietnamese couple. The Vietnamese girl astounded me and Julie by appearing in properly high heels, though she had also managed to pack a bikini for the watery parts of the trip.

Just before lunch we pulled up – with a couple of tries – next to a karst island, and scrambled ashore into a cave in the middle of the rock. I would not recommend flipflops for caving, but there were some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites hidden in the darkness.

20131021-105844.jpgInside the cave

Lunch was a feast of rice, fish and some pretty good spring rolls. Shortly afterwards we got the chance to work it all off with a spot of kayaking. Sadly, they had no one-man kayaks so I had to manoeuvre a two-man by myself. We loved this bit of the day, kayaking through arches in the rock with bats squeaking over our heads. Then there was a swimming stop, where I failed to jump off the edge of the ship but Andrew, encouraged by one of the Yorkshire men, leapt off the very high stern into the warm green water.


We cruised home, happy, coming into port past an enormous floating village – a town, really, with canals separating the floating houses.

Scooting round Cat Ba

On day two the wind had got up even more. With most of the day to use up before the bus we planned to get back to Hanoi, we rented scooters for a tour of the island.

While Andrew has a proper bike licence and has ridden big motorbikes in the past, my scooter experience consists of tootling very slowly around Aitutaki in the Cook Islands a few years back, and Julie had never been on one before. It turned out we were basically borrowing people’s personal scooters – I had one which belonged to the hostel receptionist – which just added to the nerves. They spent a while showing us how to start and brake, and fiddling with the dodgy battery on mine, before waving us off.

Actually once we’d got through town and the random people stepping or turning out in front of us it was pretty easy riding, with the traffic predominantly two-wheeled save for the odd bus or truck. By the time we made our first stop Julie and I were feeling much more confident.

That stop was at Hospital Cave, built by the Vietnamese with help from China in the 1960s. It acted as a hospital and hide-out for the Vietnamese forces, and as well as a first-floor network of concrete bunker-like rooms there’s a huge second-floor cave, with space for a cinema and a small swimming pool, and a third floor we weren’t taken to by our guide. It was a bit bare and damp, but you can imagine the claustrophobia of being hidden away there from the American bombing.

20131021-105910.jpgInside and outside Hospital Cave

Then we continued on our way, doing a loop inland and then back along the coast, via ‘butterfly valley’ – in fact there are lots of stunning butterflies everywhere on Cat Ba, from small yellow and blue ones to enormous, velvety-black specimens. Sadly the really big ones never sat still for long enough to have their photograph taken.

We stopped for lunch in a small village, randomly picking a place with a sign outside it. The family seemed a bit surprised at suddenly having three Western customers, but set to and delivered us three bowls of (instant) noodle soup with mystery meat and a bowl of the herbs you put in soups here. None of us could decide what the meat was; it was vaguely liver-y but also fatty.

20131021-105917.jpgInstant noodle soup

With a little more petrol in the tank (though not quite enough, I had to top up by buying a water bottle full on the way home) we decided to head back up our original road and then carry on north as far as that road went. It was a good idea – the scenery was stunning, through deep valleys of bush-covered karst, out to the sea at the end of the road.

20131021-105926.jpgThe road north

20131021-105935.jpgAt the end of the road

We ended our Cat Ba stay with another bus-boat-bus-bus combo, only this time with far more locals than tourists. The Haiphong – Hanoi leg was slightly crazy. We were ushered on to the bus at the side of the road without even being allowed to put bags in the luggage compartment, so we all piled bags on an empty double seat. But then more people got on. And more. The conductor pushed bags into laps and set out little plastic stools in the aisle, and at various points en route to Hanoi more people would get on and off. At journey’s end, we were nabbed by a taxi driver with a rigged meter who tried to charge us three times the going rate for the trip to the train station, and there we waited for the overnight to Dong Hoi. But that’s another blog.