Hue

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Ancient city

After exploring the north of Vietnam, we departed Hanoi by train, and travelled south. Next stop, Hue which is described as the most royal city in Vietnam! Hue is located 700km (430m) south of Hanoi, in the Thua Thein Hue province, in central Vietnam. Hue was once the capital of Vietnam, founded in 1802 by Gia Long who was the first king of the Nguyen dynasty empire. Hue remained the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945. This powerful family ruled the then capital from 1802-1945. To this day the influence of a royal lifestyle and royal customs have had a huge impact on the characteristics of the people in Hue.

The city has a rich and interesting history,  with the affects of war still very present today. Visiting the city was very enriching and very different from other parts of the country that we visited.

We stayed at a guest house for two nights and three days, exploring the ancient ruins during the day and  then enjoying the Hue nightlife.

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Highlights and must sees

The Perfume river

This ancient city lies on the banks of the Perfume river. So beautiful to see on a clear and sunny day. The Perfume river is surrounded by the ancient sights of Hue. It is also perfect for people watching, taking in the river life of the people who live here. We were also grateful to witness a stunning sunset over the ancient capital, while sitting at the banks of the river.

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The Tomb of Khai Dinh

This tomb was built for the twelfth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, Khai Dinh. The tomb is located in Chau Chu mountain, on a steep hill near the city of Hue. The architecture is a mix of western and eastern influence and took eleven years to build!

Thien Mu Pagoda

Translates to the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady and is considered to be the unofficial landmark of the city, with its iconic seven story pagoda. In addition to its rich history, the Pagoda also looks out to the gorgeous Perfume river.

The Mieu

A place to worship ten of the Nguyen dynasty kings. The Mieu is an ancestral temple to Vietnams emperors.

Imperial city (The Citadel)

The former residence of the royal family. Now, listed as an UNESCO world heritage site. This site is a large complex of hundreds of monuments and ruins. Rich in history and devastated by the Vietnam war, this former site of the old capital has a moat and ten ornate gates guarding the palace, temples and tombs.

Hue, was much different from the rest of our backpacking journey through Vietnam. I enjoyed the history and culture of this ancient city. The next stop after Hue, is further south – Hoi An

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SaPa

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SaPa

With the extreme beauty and dramatic landscape, it is easy to see why SaPa is said to be the tourism center of the northwest of Vietnam. Our visit to this gorgeous place, left me in awe. SaPa is an absolute dream to explore.

SaPa is 380km (236miles) northwest of Hanoi, located in the Lao Cai district and close to the border of China. The town of SaPa is described as a quiet mountain town and home to a diverse range of ethnic minority groups. There is a great connection between the people of SaPa and their surrounding land.  The town of SaPa sits at an elevation of 1500 meters. The region is dominated by the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains. Within this range, the highest mountain of Vietnam, Fan Si Pan is located here, at 3143m above sea level! Very impressive. The Hoang Lien Son mountain range, is the eastern extremity of the Himalayas, so amazing.

SaPa is home to a unique place of biological diversity, as the geological location and climate is able to support a great range of fauna and flora. Some of which is only found in the north west of Vietnam! Due to the high biological importance, the Hoang Lien nature reserve was made into a national park, the park includes the majority of the mountain range to the immediate south of SaPa. The beautiful souls of the people in SaPa and the natural beauty of SaPa made this travel experience so special. SaPa is a highlight of my travel adventures.

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Overnight train

As we were based in Hanoi, we took a two night, three day tour of this magical location.  Plus, two nights traveling to and from Hanoi. We were picked up from our guest house in Hanoi and transferred to the Hanoi rail station, where we boarded the overnight train to SaPa. Now, I have to admit this train journey was terrifying! Our cabin was fine, as we were traveling in a group of four, we were placed in a four bed (two bunkbeds) wooden cabin with air conditioning. We had brought some snacks and drinks to enjoy the train journey, however I had to stop drinking due to the constant violent rocking and loud screeching of the train, which made me afraid and the fact that I couldn’t see where we were going made this even worse. This fear was irrational, no one else in the group was scared (there was no need to be) the train was perfectly safe! Anyway, I did not get much sleep and was so happy when we arrived at the Lao Cai train station.

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Trekking the rice terraces

From the Lao Cai train station we were taken by mini bus to SaPa ( a 5o minute drive). Once we arrived at the town we were able to take showers before sitting down to breakfast. After breakfast, we began our trek from SaPa town. The views at the beginning of our trek was already so incredible, but continued to become more breathtaking the further we went into the mountains.

Our local guide, took us south east of SaPa, along the side of the Munong valley to the Y Linh Ho village of the black H’Mong. This section of the trek took us to lunch time, here we enjoyed a lunch with a local family, made by them. After lunch, we continued on our trekking adventure through the terraced rice fields. The sights during our trek were spectacular. Late afternoon we arrived at the Ta Van village of the Dzay people.

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Homestay

For night two, we were warmly welcomed by a family of the Dzay people in the Ta Van village for an overnight stay at their place. For the night we stayed at their traditional wooden house and we all shared stories about our lives, learning from each other.  We learnt from them about the daily life in this pretty village, and their family traditions. We shared a great meal with the family, there was a lot of talking and laughter. After dinner, their children were put to bed and  we all stayed up  playing board games and drinking rice liquor, the laughter continued well into the night. This was a really enjoyable experience! This was my first homestay and I would do one again.

Waking up the next day  to mountains views was so dreamy. The Ta Van village is absolutely stunning.

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Waterfalls and bamboo forests

We left the Ta Van village and continued on, trekking down to the south-west of SaPa to visit two more villages. The first part of this journey, was trekking through some gorgeous bamboo forests. After the bamboo forests we reached the Thac Bac- silver waterfall, the view was so majestic. The water falls down from a height of more than 100 meters. Next, we walked over the suspension ratten bridge! We then reached the Giang Ta Chai village where we met some of the red Dzao people.

After the Ta Chai village we crossed the Muong river up the mountain to visit our last village. This was the Supan village of the H’Mong. We connected with more local people before finishing our amazing two day trekking journey! From here, a mini bus took us back to the main village of SaPa.

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SaPa town

When we arrived in SaPa we were able to check into our hotel, and have the night to explore this charming place. The architecture of the buildings is so stunning and exploring the local stores and markets is a treat.

The next morning, we met up with another local guide who took us for a short walk downhill to visit the beautiful orchid gardens and pine forests. Next, we stopped by the small village of Suoi Ho. We continued our journey, trekking through rice paddy fields looking out to spectacular mountain scenery on our way to Ma Tra.  Another great day of exploring before taking the bus to the Lao Cai train station to take the dreaded overnight train back to Hanoi!

Trekking through SaPa is a must do, if visiting Vietnam.

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Ha Long Bay

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Bay of descending dragons

The famous Ha Long bay is an absolute dream.  A UNESCO world heritage site and often included in lists declaring the natural wonders of the world. Sailing through this bay is a must do. Ha Long translates to the “bay of descending dragons” – the bay is located in the gulf of Tonkin and consists of thousands of monolithic islands rising from the ocean and topped with dense vegetation.

Ha Long bay is located 170km (105 miles) east of Hanoi in the Quang Ninh province. The Bay is of great biological interest and was really fascinating to see in person,  especially for someone who has studied Wildlife Biology and Conservation and as true nature lover. Ha Long is an area of 1,553 km2 which is mostly uninhabited and unaffected by humans – and it needs to remain this way to preserve this magnificent beauty. The bay consists of 1,600 limestone monolithic islands, which have gone through 500 million years of formation! The evolution of the karst has changed via the impact of the tropical wet climate, very impressive!

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Three day tour

We joined a small cruise for a tour of Ha Long bay – there was 12 of us for a 3 day, 2 night tour. We departed from Hanoi in a mini bus.  The first day was spent sailing through the breathtaking bay, our first glimpse into this beauty. When we boarded our ship, lunch was ready to be served, a full Vietnamese buffet. After lunch, the ship arrived at the gorgeous Sung Snot Cave, we were able to get out and explore. This cave is one of the largest in Ha Long bay. Walking through the cave was incredible, and we were also exposed to some amazing views looking out at Ha Long Bay from inside the cave! So incredible.

After exploring the cave, our ship continued on, sailing past the the amazing limestone monolithic islands, so much beauty to take in and try to capture on camera. Later on in the afternoon, our ship docked for the night. Here we were able to take kayaks out and kayak through the bay, this was amazing.  Our night was spent on the cruise ship, where  we enjoyed another Vietnamese buffet, we were able to jump off the ship and swim around our area and later on had drinks on the top deck of the ship. The rooms were small and each had their own bathroom, I found sleeping on a ship for the night to be quite relaxing and charming.

The next morning, the ship set sail and continued on through the stunning bay. After lunch, we were able to get off the ship and explore Monkey Island, here you can swim at two beaches and take a hike up the mountain for some great views! And yes, you do get to see monkeys! The afternoon was very enjoyable. Next, we moved on to our beach bungalow for the night. I loved our accommodation, the Island we stayed on was tiny, so it felt like a nice getaway and the bungalows were gorgeous. Here we met some other backpackers, and enjoyed a meal and drinks with them. The next day was spent sailing back through Ha Long Bay, then to our mini bus to return to Hanoi. This trip was amazing and extremely memorable. A highlight of my travels.

 

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Tam Coc

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Three caves

Tam Coc located in the Ninh Binh province, is located 100Km (62 miles) south of Hanoi and 5km (3 miles) from the centre of the Ninh Binh town.  This place is breathtaking. The landscape consists of limestone outcrops and rices paddies along the Ngo Dong River. Tam Coc is essentially a flooded karst system, with three long tunnel caves eroded by limestone hills. These three natural caves are named Hang Cam, Hang Gialla and Hang Chateau. Often referred to as the Ha Long bay on land! A trip to this natural beauty, will have you row boating along the charming and peaceful Tam Coc system, rowing past rice paddy fields and into the mouths of the caves! Inside the mouth of a cave you will witness the gorgeous stalactites and stalagmite formations. It is easy to see why Tam Coc is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Day trip

As we were based in Hanoi, we chose the option of taking a one day tour to Tam Coc. Our tour was with about eight other people, we departed Hanoi in a mini bus. Our first stop was at the Hoa Lu ancient capital, here we were able to visit King Dinh and King Le’s Temples. Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, so it was really interesting to see this historic location.

Next stop, the Tam Coc wharf were a Vietnamese buffet lunch was part of the agenda. After lunch, we rowed through the gorgeous Ngo Dong river, also referred to as the green sea!  I was in awe of the incredible scenery. The views are stunning. Seeing these formations was one of my highlights from the whole trip to Vietnam.

After the sailing tour, we were able to bike ride around the village before departing for Hanoi. The biking tour was fun, as we rode past the rice paddies and were able to see the local area.

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Hanoi

 

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Backpacking journey through Vietnam

After a week in Bangkok, Thailand, we flew (only a 1 hour and 50 minute flight) to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. This was the start of our six week backpacking journey from the North to the South of Vietnam. Hanoi, was out first introduction to this amazing country. As one of the most ancient capital cities in the world, we found the city quite charming with its mix of Russian, Chinese and French influencers. With its rich history, culture and charming atmosphere, Hanoi was the perfect introduction to Vietnam.

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Old quarter

We stayed at a guest house in the old quarter  (the Hoan Kiem district). This district is considered to be the busiest in Hanoi and the most popular district with tourists. Plus, the old quarter is the oldest developed area in Vietnam! I found wondering through the streets of the old quarter to be rather charming, as you can witness generations of Vietnamese life. Strolling through the ancient commercial streets is a must do in Hanoi. Street food and street artists are prominent. Each street was unique and provided a different glimpse into the local way of life. I always find that just roaming the streets, with no plan is the best way to gain a sense of any of the locations that I visit, and the best way to find hidden gems.

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Highlights and must sees

  • Hoan Kiem lake and Ngoc Son temple: We found ourselves relaxing by this lake on most days of our trip. It a a calming place to rest from  roaming around the hectic streets. The lake surrounds the gorgeous Ngoc Son temple.
  • Ho Chi Minh museum: An informative museum dedicated to the late Vietnamese leader; Ho Chi Minh.
  • Ho Chi Minh mausoleum: The final resting place of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
  • Temple of literature: Visit the country’s oldest University! Although this historic site of education was destroyed during a war, restoration work is ongoing to retain this 1,000 year old temple of education.
  • Thang long water puppet theatre: Watch a traditional performance at this gorgeous theatre, seeing this performance was one of my favorite nights in Hanoi.
  • Dong Xuan Market: Shop and bargain hunt in Hanoi’s largest indoor market! Even if you don’t like to shop, walking around this market is amazing to just take in the city’s atmosphere.
  • Vietnamese coffee: Try the local coffee at one of the numerous cafe shops around the city, it is strong and delicious!
  • Binge on street food: Try the local street food, there are many options in the old quarter and around the Hoan Kiem lake. Full of flavor and so cheap.
  • Nightlife: Experience the laid back Hanoi night life, cheap beer bars on street corners, to fancy cocktail bars in the French quarter.

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 Trips from Hanoi

For the beginning of our backpacking journey of Vietnam we based ourselves in Hanoi. From Hanoi we were able to take three trips before heading south.

  1. A day trip to the stunning  Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
  2.  Three days in the magical Ha Long Bay
  3.  Four days in the breathtaking Sapa

From Hanoi, we continued our journey south along the coast, next stop Hue 

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Ayutthaya

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A day trip from Bangkok

Ayutthaya lies 80 km north of Bangkok and makes for the perfect day trip (or longer) from the busy city. The history of this place is spectacular. The historic city of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and was the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam. The city was attacked by the Burmese in 1767 and burned to the ground. The city was never restored and is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage area.  The Ayutthaya historical park is an archaeological site, which contains the remains of historic statues, Buddhist temples, monasteries and palaces. Visiting Ayutthaya was a highlight of our travels to Thailand.

 

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Getting there

There are various ways to commute to Ayutthaya from Bangkok.

  • Car/taxi service
  • Bus
  • Minibus
  • Boat – For a boat trip, you will need to book in advance. This method of transportation would also be for a longer trip, as it will take at least a day to arrive!

We chose to take the train service. This seemed to be the easiest and most cost effective. The train departs from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station, and provides a scenic route. The journey will take anywhere from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours depending on the service. The cost of a second class ticket (a carriage with A/C) will range from 245 – 345 Thai baht ( $7-$11 USD). The cost of a third class ticket ranges from 15-20 Thai baht ( 50 – 65 US cents). I found the train ride to and from Bangkok, to be relaxing and a nice break from the hectic city.

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Getting around

There are various modes of transportation to take you around the historical park.

  • Tuk-tuk
  • motorbike
  • mini bus
  • Songteow
  • Cyclo
  • Boat

We chose to rent bicycles for the day, to ride around the historical park on our own self guided tour. Renting a bike will cost you 40-50 Thai Baht  ($1.30-$1.60 USD) for the day.  It was easy to find places to rent bikes, pick up a map of the park and get going! We felt this was  the best way to see this historic city, and we were not disappointed. The ride was easy and we were able to explore a lot of ground, cycling between the ruins and taking in the beautiful sights. If we had been there for at least another day, I think a boat journey around Ayutthaya would have been worthwhile. Overall a trip to visit this historic park is recommended, being surrounded by the city’s history was an extremely fulfilling travel experience.

 

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Bangkok

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Bangkok, crazy, chaotic and absolutely fantastic! I have visited this wonderful city twice, and would go back for more, given the chance! This city is amazing to explore. Culturally rich, friendly locals with a great city vibe. There are many different areas of Bangkok to explore, gaining varying experiences from each.  In amongst the craze there are many hidden gems. From Royalty, temples, markets, canals, shopping, street art and a vibrant nightlife, this city has something for everyone. The food is also wonderful; local, fresh and healthy.

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Sukhumvit

For our first visit to the capital of Thailand, we stayed at a guest house in the Sukhumvit district of Bangkok. I loved this district, so vibrant and full of life. The nightlife was amazing, from night markets to classy bars. The shopping was fun, street markets and easy enough to get to the luxury malls to look around. Also, Sukhumvit road is the longest road in Thailand, and one of the longest boulevards in the world, pretty cool. Our stay felt authentic and we were able to hang out with the locals, which is always so fulfilling and gives you a better learning experience about that destination.

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Khao San Road

For our second visit, we decided to stay at a backpackers on the famous Khao San road. Located in the northern part of Rattanakosin. Described as the backpacking hub of South East Asia. It was crowded and full of partying. This was fun to experience for a day or two, however I did prefer our first stay in the Sukhumvit district, which gave us a better feel of how people actually live in Bangkok. I would love to return to Bangkok and have the opportunity  to stay in a different district. Bangkok has 50 districts, and these are split up into 169 subdistricts! So there are plenty of areas to stay in and explore.

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Highlights and must-sees

  • Grand palace – The official residence of the Kings of Siam. Located in the Rattanakosin area (the old city of Bangkok).
  • Wat Phra Kaew – Temple of the emerald Buddha. Located in the Phra Nakhon district (the historic center of Bangkok).
  • Floating market-the closet one is Taling Chan which is fairly small. If you have time and want to travel outside of the city, the top rated floating markets near Bangkok are the Damnoen Saduek floating market and the Amphawa floating market.
  • Yaowarat road – Bangkok’s Chinatown, which is located in the Samphathawong district.
  • Wat Po- Buddhist temple complex located in the Phra Nakhon district.
  • Chao Phraya River – The “river of kings’ that flows through the city. Provides scenic views of the city and you can use boat transportation to get around to the different districts.
  • Chatuchak– a weekend market and one of the largest markets in the world! A popular shopping center for the local people, is now becoming popular with tourists.
  • Nightlife – Bangkok has a very vibrant nightlife. The best areas to go – Sukhumvit, Khao San road and the royal city avenue (RCA).

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Phuket

Sunshine and smiles

Phuket, my first introduction to Thailand and to Southeast Asia. It was a wonderful introduction, such beautiful and friendly people and very helpful. Smiles, great scenery and amazing food. Culture and history, perfect. A great week in Phuket and it is on the list to visit again! Hot weather, sunshine and beaches, a perfect combination. Tasty and cheap Thai food was a definite winner, one of my favourite cuisines and easy to find healthy and vegetarian options. Walking around the streets, chatting to the locals, exploring the markets, spending time on the beach and drinking Thai cocktails whilst enjoying the Phuket vibrant nightlife, is a perfect way to explore the beauty of Phuket.

Highlights and must-sees of Phuket

  • Patong: Beach resort town. It is the center for Phuket’s shopping and nightlife. Beach by day and explore the many beer bars, go go bars and nightclubs during the night.
  • Old Phuket town: Historical part of Phuket with shrines and temples.
  • Bangla road: The heart of Phuket nightlife, music, cheap beer, street performances  and more. An interesting and must do experience.
  • Wat Chalong: A stunning Buddhist temple and considered to be one of the most important in Phuket.
  • Simon Cabaret show: An entertaining and beautiful musical performance, performed by ladyboys.
  • Thai boxing: Exciting to watch live.
  • Phuket weekend market: A maze of stalls to get lost in.

Phuket is located in Southern Thailand, it is a rain-forested and mountainous Island. It is also the largest Island in Thailand! The climate is hot and humid year round. There is a monsoon season from May – October to be aware of. The official language is Thai and Baht is the currency. It is easy to get around Phuket. Most places are walkable, and a great way to explore the streets and markets. Tuk Tuks, and buses are readily available. Plenty of accommodation options. We stayed in a guest house in the Patong region. The local people are very friendly and willing to help. Can’t wait to go back!

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Phi Phi Island

Day trip to Phi Phi Don, Thailand.

A Tropical Getaway

Breathtaking scenery, turquoise waters and stunning limestone formations. Phi Phi island is the perfect tropical getaway. I love hot weather, beaches and remote locations, Phi Phi Island is the perfect place to enjoy nature, relax in the sunshine and to immerse yourself in the water. A time for reflection and relaxation. Whilst I was staying in Phuket, this was a great day trip to explore more of the amazing Thailand.

I made the trip to Phi Phi Don the largest and main Phi Phi Island. The Phi Phi view point was the highlight of my visit, a scenic 20-30 minute hike to the top, located 186 meters above sea level. It is well worth the hike, as the view is absolutely stunning and provides a great overview of the Island. After the hike, Exploring and relaxing on the beautiful beaches is a great way to spend your afternoon. To finish, eating the amazing local Thai food and drinking cheap beers or cocktails at an outdoor restaurant tops off the visit before heading back to Phuket! I would love the opportunity to go back and explore more of the surrounding Islands. Next time I would  take advantage of and enjoy the snorkeling and kayaking experiences.

Phi Phi Island is only a 90 minute ferry ride from Phuket, or a 45 minute speed boat ride! The Phi Phi Islands are a small archipelago consisting of six Island groups. The Islands are apart of the Krabi providence in Southern Thailand. The region of these Islands are a part of a marine national park  The largest Island Phi Phi Don (where I visited) is the ‘main’ Island, it is the only inhabited Island. The peak season to visit is from December to March (dry season). Be weary if you visit during April-November, as this is wet season, where monsoons are likely to occur. These are some of the most beautiful Islands in the world, however they are at risk from tourist leaving their mark. When visiting the Island, do so in an eco-friendly way to ensure the preservation for future generations. Be a responsible guest and don’t leave your mark.

 

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