To Laos by Land

I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.


To get to Laos from Vietnam over land, you have to cross mountains. Physically, you traverse the Annamite mountain range which runs over 1000km down through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Mentally, you have to confront the journey it takes to get there.

I think, in some ways, travelling has an over-glorified image. From social media people are given the impression that every day presents sunsets, incredible food, beaches, mountains, basic Instagrams of people gazing faux-pensively into the distance. I freely admit I have contributed to perpetrate that image. And I have to admit, many moments are like that; some cannot be truly captured by a photograph. But many are not – the trials and tribulations of travelling aren’t always as ‘Instagram-able’. The border crossing from Vietnam to Laos was one such journey. Hey – the lows make the highs higher.

We had booked a night bus with our hotel in Sapa. The light faded from the sky and the bus didn’t come. When we went to check everything was ok, we were assured by the nice lady at reception that it was. A while later, she came and told us that a car was going to come and take us to the bus stop. She looked a bit harassed. We went with it – after a while of travelling, you learn that they don’t always tell you everything when you book a journey. So we got in the car – the lady did too – and we went to the bus stop. There was no bus there and it was cold. She stood with us for a while, shouted at a few people in Vietnamese and then left. There was still no bus, we didn’t know when it was coming and it was cold. Like children, we wished the lady would come back. We ate some oreos. Buses came and went; we didn’t know whether any of them were ours. There was a small crowd gathering on the tarmac and we established that a group of us were getting the same bus so we could at least stick together.

I don’t know how many hours later, a bus arrived that we thought might be ours. Despite having been there the longest, we ended up being one of the last on. As a result Roza and I had to share a space, not just with one another but with a Vietnamese family who had paid about a dollar for their fare (we had paid over thirty). Our relief at getting on the bus was short lived. We desperately tried to sleep but – with one lady asleep on my feet, one guy in the aisle with his feet sticking into me, another who kept jabbing me in the ribs with his elbows (I think on purpose) and two kids behind us who kept hitting us on the head – this was little short of impossible. Some solace came when the woman in front put her chair back onto my legs which at least meant that the lady could no longer sleep on my feet (which was painful). But then there was literally nowhere for her to go and I felt very sorry for her as she hunched with her knees tucked up in front of her in the tiny space that there was in the aisle. It’s not like it was comfortable for anybody (apart from the kids who had managed to fall asleep on the shelf behind us). As bus journeys went, it was definitely in my bottom five of all time.

When we pulled into Dien Bien Phu, it was still dark and we were knackered but we were able to get off that bus which could only be a good thing. There were a couple of other buses there and we guessed that one of them had to be ours but there were no signs of life. A few of us went off in search of coffee but the vendor at the bus shelter wasn’t serving. Someone must have come to open up the second bus because through a sleepy haze I remember giving my bag to a couple of guys and them hauling it up onto the roof of the bus and securing all the bags together with rope, an arrangement that I wasn’t overly comfortable with. I would later learn that this would be the case with all buses in Laos. The second bus set off as it was starting to get light. We stopped for breakfast for one last banh mi – our last meal in Vietnam. It was very cheap and very good. We also got some sticky rice with what we described as ‘fishy sawdust’ which, strange as it sounds, was thoroughly enjoyable.

As we drove up into the mountains, we kept stopping to load cardboard boxes onto the bus. Presumably this was their way of making a bit of money on the side – to take things across the border. However, it meant the bus was getting heavier and heavier as we approached the Vietnam-Laos border. On an area of road which could better be described as ‘scree’, the engine of our bus sputtered out. The driver revved it again and again but alas: we were stuck. We all piled out and the men gallantly attempted to push the bus back onto the main road to no avail.We looked at the time. The border we were attempting to cross was a quiet one and only open for a few hours each day. It was too far to walk, we were miles from anywhere and our Vietnamese visas would run out if we did not cross it today. Fortunately for us, there was some road construction work which had been going on around the bend and there were some workers, with a digger, on site.  The men, keen to show their chivalry once again got behind the bus, some sort of cord was attached from the bus to the digger and the bus was pulled out onto solid road. I’m pretty sure something significant broke in the process but the bus was free and we were back on the road. Crisis averted.

Not too long after we were pulled out, we arrived at the border which brought on the next round of drama and introduced us to the wonderful world of border scams. We had our Vietnam visas stamped as invalid and then had to walk in no man’s land for a while to get to the Tay Trang border crossing station where we hoped to get the Laos visa on arrival. The process is confusing and frustrating. You collect a form at the first window, fill in the form, attach your photo. You hand this in, along with your passport at which point you are more or less at their mercy as they make you pay a ‘processing fee’, a ‘stamp fee’ and a ‘tourism tax’ on top of the cost of the visa itself. You can argue the toss, as an Italian lady on our bus who’d already shown herself to be quite a character attempted to, threatening to call the police. But what can you do? They have your passport and even when you get it back, it’s likely you’ve already paid them by that point. They either laugh or get aggressive. However, me and Roza fortunately escaped the $5 ‘medical check’ by just walking past straight to the bus. Oscar wasn’t so lucky. But we had all made it to Laos, visas stamped in our passports.

It was at this point that I realised over $100 and some Thai Baht had gone missing from my document wallet. I had barely any money to exchange to buy food. But that was ok because when we made a pit stop, the only food on offer was some sort of giant rodent which someone was burning the hair off to prepare it for being barbecued. Which I could live without.

We eventually arrived in Muang Khua late afternoon. Some people on our bus were staying on it to Luang Prabang, almost three hundred kilometres away. But we had decided we wanted to experience Northern Laos and we had been recommended by a couple in Vietnam to take the slow boat down the Nam Ou. We wandered down through the town to the river to find we had missed the last boat (being the dry season, boats were infrequent). Despite some intense bartering largely involving the Italian woman, it wasn’t worth the cost to charter a boat downriver. She was not impressed. But we had made it over the mountains, both physical and mental, to laid-back languid Laos. And at least we were off that bus.

Mount Fansipan

Dawn has not yet broken when our bus rolls into Sapa. I open an eye blearily and only see pitch darkness, a dark chasm of anonymity. We could be anywhere. Somewhere close looms Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. We climb it today. I glance at my watch: it reads 4:20am. I sink back into unconsciousness.

I am woken once again at 5.30am by a flashlight being shone into the bus. I squint out into the darkness and see the bright artificial light reflecting off the windows to make out the outline of a mans face. It is, I think, our mountain guide. ‘Is that our guide?’ whispers Oscar. ‘Hope so.’ I whisper back. We wake up Roza, locate our bags in the darkness of the bus and move to get off the bus. The door is locked. Ah. There is no driver; he must have left when the bus arrived in Sapa. We fumble with the door from the inside and our supposed guide looks to see if he can open it from the outside. We stare helplessly at eachother from opposite sides of the glass. The day is not off to a good start. Why did we decide to climb Fansipan straight from the night bus? Eventually Oscar finds some mechanism of some kind, yanks it down and the cold night air takes us by surprise. We are free.

‘Sapa O’Chau?’ I ask the man. ‘Sapa O’Chau,’ he nods. I shake him by the hand; he looks a bit surprised. I introduce myself and he mumbles something back. His English is very basic. If he ever did tell us his name, I cannot remember it. He points towards a car where another man sits behind the wheel. He waves and grins. We wave back. ‘We need to get our backpacks,’ I say. Our guide looks confused. I mime ‘backpacks’ and point to the bus. Our guide looks hesitantly at his friend. The guy behind the wheel gets out of the car. I repeat myself and he understands; his English is better. Thankfully, the storage part of the bus is not locked and we are able to get our bags after, between the five of us, we work out how to open the compartment. Finally we, and our bags, are inside the vehicle and we are driving to the start of the trek, the damp cold mists parting before the car’s headlights.

Our trek started from the entrance to Hoang Lien National Park. We were given a cold baguette for breakfast (Oscar shared his with a dog; I all but force-fed Roza hers) and some snacks for the walk which we put into day bags with other provisions we had bought. We layered up against the cold and donned our walking boots. When we were ready, we set off into a mizzly dawn. To Oscar’s disappointment, the dog did not come with us.

We walked the first part of the walk pretty quickly, storming up through rocky marsh forests, up twisted tangled staircases of entwined roots, occasionally treading on a carpet of soggy pink blossoms. Although it was rainy and cold, we were working up quite a temperature until we stopped, at which point we became shivery cold. It took us about two hours to get to the first rest stop, where we sat shivering but at least out of the rain. We refuelled, before setting off again into the elements, the mist masking the way forward and any possible views we might have had.

We were going slower now and it took us about another hour to get to the second rest stop. We got chatting to a group of Americans who were on their way down – they had opted for the two-day trek. ‘You’re doing it in a day?’ they asked incredulously, watching us shiver pathetically, our breaths white and misty in the cold air. They took pity on us and gave us a candle which, in our state of desperation, we gathered round with hands outstretched, burning our fingers on the flame. I imagine it was a very sorry sight.

It had stopped raining when we moved on, but there still wasn’t a view to be seen as we clambered up a rocky path, icy droplets on the frozen foliage clacking together like wintry castanets. From there, it was about two hours to get to the top. We scrambled up scree slopes, climbed over craggy outcrops, sank into bog and slipped in thick cloying mud. At last, we found ourselves at the bottom of a set of stairs. This is the measly distance you can climb if you opt to get the cable car up. We should have been relieved at this point, but we felt demoralised as we ascended those stairs. Coming down them were a load of Asian tourists, dry, clean, happy, taking photographs of the wet, dirty, miserable British walkers. Those stairs, pathetic as it sounds, were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were physically exhausted, feeling the altitude, our hearts and heads pounding and our legs weak. But together, step by step, we made it to the top, feeling triumphant and quite frankly knackered. We collapsed on eachother in a group hug. A team effort.


While we elbowed our way through fresh, selfie-taking cable-car people, our guide prepared our lunch – sandwiches with cream cheese, pork, cucumber, tomato and herbs followed by apple and banana (or dessert sandwiches with oreos and banana, despite doubtful looks from everyone else – would thoroughly recommend).


Although we sat down to rest our tired legs, it was impossible to stay sat down as it was just too cold, so I walked around eating my sandwich and admiring the views, such as they were. Despite the fact we couldn’t really see much, there was something wonderful and mysterious about the dark peaks rising out of the cloud. The clouds and the sky were the same shade of white-grey, the line between them indistinguishable so that if felt almost like Fansipan was floating in the sky, a rugged rocky ship sailing through an ocean of thick swirling mist.

We began our descent, which seemed to take an age. We were rewarded, however, by the sun finally making an appearance through the clouds, at which point it became quite warm and I had to take off a layer of clothing. At one point we stopped to rest and, it seemed like just for us, a curtain of cloud was drawn aside to reveal the peaks we’d just come from, the sun caramelising the clouds at the edges and revealing patches of blue sky. And as you soar above that cosmic golden valley of mist you think ‘this is why I climb mountains.’ Then the veil of cloud slowly slid down once again, as if that beautiful vision had never been, and we moved on.


We walked considerably quicker after that point, our guide urging us on. We stumbled down the rocks while he skipped nimbly from rock to rock, carrying a red stool that he’d found on the way down. We realised that we must have blanked out large parts of the walk on the way up (or perhaps we were half asleep) as we kept walking through scraps of forest we didn’t recognise, every ten minutes thinking we were almost there and each time being disappointed. We heard the sounds of a car and thought we must be almost back at the start but it wasn’t until the arch of national park was right in front of us that we realised we were made it.

After eleven hours of walking, we had climbed and descended Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam. Our legs were aching but our hearts were light, exhilarated, victorious. You haven’t just conquered the mountain but you have conquered yourself. Your weariness feels worthy somehow – you know you will ‘sleep the sleep of the just’ as my mother says. The views may have been fleeting but friendship was not. You have achieved something. This is why we climb mountains.


Take a walk with me. Past the street sellers hawking their wares. Past quiet temples hidden in tiny spaces in the maze of the Old Quarter. Watch out for the motorbikes weaving their chaotic way through the narrow streets, little changed in the last few decades, save for tourist amenities. Don’t look at the map – you’ll only increase your chance of being run over. Besides, you’ll swiftly get lost again. I swear we’ve been here before. Anyway. There’s the cathedral, a majestic and fume-blackened reminder of colonial days. And there: steaming beneath the embrace of a banyan tree, a street-side stall churns out banh goinem cua be and banh ran ngot. The English translations (‘pillow cake’ or ‘fried nem’) on the sign above these snacks don’t elucidate these amazing-smelling mysteries. You just have to order and hope. Welcome to Hanoi.



We arrived from Halong late-afternoon and plunged into the capital’s tumultuous tide of tuktuks, trays of food and touts. We had a Google Map screenshot of where our hostel was and, after almost a month on the road, were quite confident in our navigation of new places. At least for the first half hour. Then again after what we found what we thought was the right street. And again when, after walking in a circle we were sure it was the right street. It was. But no hostel. We swallowed our sweaty pride and asked for help. Our would-be-rescuers stared at our map, at the maps on their own phones, as perplexed as we were that the hostel didn’t seem to exist at all. The sun, and our hopes, had started to set and we were starting to worry about where to go. We tried asking one last person, a guard at a fancy-looking hotel, who didn’t speak such good English. A well-to-do Vietnamese couple from the hotel came over asking if they could help, looked at the name of our hostel, looked at us and at eachother. ‘Your hostel is several kilometres away from here.’ Facepalm. ‘We’re about to go out. We can drive you if you like.’ And they did, in their fancy SUV, brushing off our offer of money and restoring our faith in the people of Vietnam after the madness of Halong Bay. We couldn’t thank them enough (or apologise for getting their leather seats so sweaty) but they just smiled and wished us a good trip. Random acts of kindness, hey. Beautiful people.

The hostel was appalling. The worst in Vietnam and, looking back, of the entire journey. The dorm was filthy, the bathroom was foul, the shower didn’t work, the toilet was broken, the bathroom door didn’t close, let alone lock, there was a hole in my bed…the list goes on (not to mention someone – not me, surprisingly – contracting some sort of disease after having licked a table in the vicinity). Of course, you are free to choose your own destiny but let me give you some advice: don’t stay at The Drift if you are ever in Hanoi. It is $2.50 a night and there is free beer. It is not worth it. Drift some place else, if you catch my drift.

We drifted (I’ll stop now) into the Old Quarter in search of food, after having showered by crouching naked under a cold tap and trying to forget about it by drinking the free beer hoi provided by our establishment. We were tired, hungry and disorientated in the narrow winding streets of old Hanoi. After having done a few laps of what looked like the same streets, we wearily stopped at a stall, barely lit by a streetlight, run by a little old woman ladling out steaming bowls of pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. We pulled up little plastic stools as, grinning toothlessly, the lady served up our pho, mixing the noodles with the broth and encouraging us to add the chilli pastes, lime and leaves that she’d placed on a tray next to the soup. We tucked in with gusto, slurping up the broth and clumsily stuffing the noodles in our mouth with plastic chopsticks. It was incredible. We’d had pho many times in Vietnam, but this was the best. It was also where we learnt to eat it properly. The only Western patrons at the stall, we were the subject of much amusement for the local regulars due to our unwieldy way of eating. Chuckling, the elderly gentleman opposite me demonstrated how to eat noodle soup, winding the noodles around the spoon with your chopsticks, then dipping the spoon into the broth so you could eat the two together. After a few attempts, I looked up at him for approval, my mouth full of noodles. Still laughing, he gave me a thumbs up.

We ate lots more street food in Hanoi. Any stall with tempting aromas was basically an excuse to have a meal. We ate banh goi (‘pillow cake’) – like Vietnamese  deep-fried cornish pasties – nem cua be (‘sea crab nem’) – similar to spring rolls but flaky, delicate and stubby – banh trang – the amazing salad-like dish we ate in Ben Tre – bun bo nam bo – stir-fried beef with mango and noodles in a tangy sauce – bun cha – barbequed pork with vermicelli noodles – xoi yen – sticky rice topped with fat and other toppings of your choice. Hanoi’s got it all. We also tried ‘egg coffee’, Vietnamese coffee served with whipped egg whites so that the top of the coffee is almost like a coffee-y marshmallow. Ducking under the eaves of a silk shop, we walked down a tiny corridor and up a rickety staircase to a fairy-light-twinkling balcony overlooking a small garden terrace. Here, we had the BEST egg coffee. Super sweet; super strong.


We explored the network of tiny streets of the Old Quarter, each street specialising in a different trade, as we learnt when we were trying to find someone to fix my backpack (a broken backpacked backpacker is a sad business). When we found the right street, I bartered with a guy who said he could fix it. He ended up doing so for 45,000VND (at the time, about £1.50). We went to Ngoc Son Temple ‘the temple of the jade mountain’, in the centre of Hoan Kiem lake where I befriended (it’s Facebook official) a groovy Vietnamese lady. According to legend, a golden turtle carried the magical sword of the emperor into the watery depths of the lake where, presumably, it still lies. A mummified descendent of this divine being stares, cross-eyed, from a glass case within the temple. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or terrifying.



We walked around Hoan Kiem lake about a million times during our stay in Hanoi. The first time because we wanted to, a second and third time because we were talking to a Vietnamese student who wanted to practice his English and we didn’t want to be rude, a further time with newly arrived Oscar and numerous other times. The lake was the main thing I used to orientate myself in Hanoi so we kept going back there. Also, it looked beautiful at night, the scarlet bridge arching over to the temple lit up and its reflection glittering in the still, black water.


Oscar and I headed West of the citadel over the railway line, strolling through Lenin’s park, where a huge statue of Lenin looks out toward Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The monstrous blocks of stone, surrounded by guards stood to attention in pristine white uniform, are in stark contrast to Ho’s wish for a simple burial. We visited Hanoi’s citadel, only discovered recently, rather run-down and filled with seemingly random exhibitions. We wandered deliriously for what seemed like hours through rooms filled with identical-looking bricks. What is the difference between a rectangular and rammed brick? Does anyone know these things? We left half-mad and not sure why we’d entered in the first place.

Hanoi is a city which gleams with golden temples and glasses of beer hoi. Swirling incense mixes with traffic fumes and steam from the food stalls on every corner. Neat rows of foreign embassies stand next to crumbling citadels, eclipsed by new tower blocks. Hanoi is a mix of the old and the new, the revered and the tacky, the sincere and the scams. The beating heart of Vietnam, the ‘river within’, captures the country in a nutshell.

Halong Bay

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks.

The karst peaks of Halong Bay are on the front of every travel brochure on Vietnam. Google places to go in South East Asia and, chances are, Halong Bay will make top three. However, it doesn’t take an experienced traveller to realise that the beauty of the places you visit doesn’t often live up to expectations built on Lonely Planet descriptions. I was dreading fleets of tourist boats and pollution choking the much-photographed (and photoshopped) waters of the bay. Refreshingly, Halong Bay is one of the rare cases in which you feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. Even in less-than-optimum weather, Halong Bay was stunning.

That isn’t to say our whole experience was picture-perfect. It was not. The first difficulty was getting there. We mistakenly believed that we would be able to get a direct sleeper bus from Phong Nha – in fact, we had to change in Hanoi. The first forty minutes or so of the journey was spent stopping at every single hostel on Phong Nha’s one street. Why there couldn’t be just one meeting point is beyond me. Vietnam logic. The rest of the ride was uneventful; I slept all the way to Hanoi. Arriving in Hanoi at dawn, we embarked on an unanticipated trek to where we had to catch our next bus; at least it wasn’t as far as several taxi drivers claimed it was, which ranged from seventeen to seventy kilometres (it was about a kilometre). We grabbed a banh mi from a streetside stall while we waited for the second bus which didn’t drop us in Halong City as we’d been told it would.

For those wanting to do a cruise of Halong Bay, book it in Hanoi – the bus and boat will be included and you will be dropped off at the harbour prior to departure. This, I believe, is what most sensible people do. For those that are less sensible book a hostel in Halong City, find yourself at a harbour a good fifteen kilometres away from there and spend a stressful half hour arguing with taxi drivers, all of whom swear blindly that there isn’t a bus and that you must pay an extortionate fare to get to where you want to go. Of course, there is a bus and that’s how we eventually got to the city which is not much to speak of (another reason just to do a cruise).

One positive of being in Halong itself was Bai Tho or Poem Mountain which is in the heart of the city. We shared a taxi there with some French people we had met in our hostel and started the climb together (they had to go back when they realised they’d left a phone in the taxi). Despite the guy in our hostel telling us what a challenging climb the mountain was, it really was more of a hill. We stormed up it, barely breaking a sweat (something to be savoured in South East Asia) and stopped still at the sight that awaited us at the top. The whole bay was spread out beneath us, rocky forest-carpeted crags rising from the ocean, the ones in the distance fading into an ethereal mist. Birds of prey wheeled about the huge limestone mounds, surfing the currents of the winds as they hovered then dove through the rugged valleys of karst seascape. Although the day hadn’t been particularly clear, the clouds parted for a watery sunset, the sun’s pinky light shimmering hazily on the sea. We sat on a rocky outcrop and watched the water turn from green to pink to orange before descending back to the town. Some faith was restored in humanity when we discovered that the French girl had got her phone back from the taxi driver.


The next day we commenced our cruise of the bay. My fear of a legion of gridlocked tourist vessels rose again in my chest as we walked through the harbour to find our ship past rows and rows of boats. However, when we got out into the bay, this fear dissipated: although the occasional boat floated past, our only neighbours were the karst cliffs towering above us. We spent the day happily sailing round this mystical landscape, exploring barnacle covered coves of azure water in bamboo boats and climbing up to get to viewpoints of the bay on a couple of islands. It was on these islands that you really realised how many tourists had flocked to the bay, practically having to elbow your way up steep staircases past people who had stopped to rest in the middle of the path only to be assaulted at the top by selfie stick-wielding visitors hell-bent on getting the ‘perfect shot’.  Although the views were good, they weren’t as good as those of Poem Mountain and we were rather relieved to get back on the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other not-so-perfect part of our experience occurred towards the end of the day, when Roza realised she had lost her purse. We had had to change boats halfway through the day and she had assumed she’d left it on the first boat. However, the guy on our boat had radioed back to the first vessel: they had her purse, it was all fine. But then he started to demand money from us alleging that we had not paid for a number of the day’s activities. We had, and gave him the number of our hostel so they could confirm this. He paid no attention and started to blackmail us, stating that he would not give back the purse if we did not pay him. We got back to land, where it transpired the purse was left on the bus we’d caught to the harbour. Two things we learnt from this: firstly to keep valuables on us at all times and secondly that some people won’t hesitate to lie through their teeth if they have something to gain from you. Of course, these people are not in the majority – a number of people helped get the purse back – but it is sadly something to be aware of when travelling. I do not wish to end on this note. Halong Bay is an area of outstanding natural beauty with its emerald topped peaks amidst an cerulean ocean topped with a snaking mist. And we didn’t even see it on a sunny day. I’ll leave you with a story.

Legend tells of a mountain dragon plummeting towards Vietnam’s coastline during a great war, its thrashing tail carving out cavernous crevasses and gaping valleys from the rock. As the mighty beast tumbled into the ocean, an almighty wave engulfed the mountain landscape, leaving only the craggy crests of those ancient peaks. The story is the bay’s namesake, for ‘Halong’ literally translates as ‘where the dragon descends’. Whether the dragon ascended or will ascend once again may be lost in the mists of myth. That would certainly make an original Instagram. Alas, that wasn’t to be on my own visit. For now, the dragon may slumber submerged beneath the surface of the water, tail spikes mistaken for just another jagged pinnacle.

A note from the author

Apologies. All has been quiet on the blogging front, the opposite of which can be said for real life. Noisy, chaotic, sweaty, incredible real life. I have been so busy living it that I’ve barely had time to write in my journal let alone make my words legible enough for a wider audience. Over the next few weeks, I fully intend to update Thoughts Walks Forks with adventures both philosophical and physical (and, of course, culinary) from the last six months. The next post will pick up in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Until then, I’ll leave you with a photograph of the beautiful bay itself, jagged peaks rising from an ethereal haze. Stay tuned and follow for notifications of future posts.


Phong Nha-Ke Bang

Our next stop was Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of important conservation value. A Unesco World Heritage site, Phong Nha boasts natural attractions both above and below ground: karst mountains swathed in pristine rainforest sweep the sky while extensive subterranean cave systems wait to be explored beneath them. In fact, Phong Nha is home to the world’s largest cave – Son Doong, only discovered in 2009 – and the longest underground river. As we arrived in the small village of Son Trach (the only town in the park apart from a number of minority villages), we were excited to do some exploring ourselves.

The area used to be strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military (I believe there’s still a fair amount of unexploded ordinance about) and although it’s much more relaxed now it is still necessary to do a tour with a licensed operator – you can’t really wander off into the hills for a hike alone (as romantic as this sounds). Therefore one of our priorities was to book something for the next day; we booked a day including both Paradise Cave and Dark Cave (amongst other places) which was expensive but we hoped it would be worth it. That afternoon was spent exploring Son Trach which really didn’t take too much exploring – it’s really just one street of guesthouses which gives way to a more local village with buffalos ambling their docile way along. However, you can get to the river and walk along its muddy banks, your feet sinking slightly into the mud and leaving a trail of footprints behind you. To the right, green carpeted limestone mountains loom over the vivid blue river, reflected in the gently rippled water. Bright blue boats bob up and down, a splash of colour in a mystical landscape of green, grey and silver. On one of the boats, a small group of children were playing and shouted out to us as we walked past. To the left, villagers go about their daily lives in wooden houses on stilts, washing blowing on lines in the wind. The interface between right and left is saddening – the muddy shoreline is choked with rubbish, plastic, polystyrene, as far as you can see. Snarled around weeds, sucked into the mud and dancing in a slight breeze, it’s everywhere and it’s sickening. All through Vietnam, we’d noticed that there was a rubbish problem – there are practically no bins anywhere – but in a National Park and one that contains protected animals such as tigers, elephants and saola, you’d really think that regulations would be much stricter or more effort would be made to clear it up. But people here just don’t care and it’s not really fair to say it’s their fault – they are probably unaware of the negative consequences of dropping litter and the environmental pollution that ensues (affecting not just protected animals and plants but people who, at the end of the day, are part of the same ecosystem even if we often feel disconnected from it). It’s only education that is going to make a difference here and unfortunately that is going to take time. We walked back to the village, feeling rather saddened as the light faded from the sky. The evening was spent eating Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with beanspouts and pork  – banh khoai – with a peanut dipping sauce, sat round a crackling fire in the company of two Australian couples, huddled against the surprising cold of the Vietnamese North.

The next day saw us driving off into the depths of the national park, jagged karst mountains rising up from a clingy shawl of emerald forest, a faint mist skimming their peaks. Our first stop was ‘Eight Ladies’ cave. This is the site where eight young volunteers clearing a road sheltered during an American bombing raid. Unfortunately, they were trapped in the cave when a bomb caused it to collapse and their comrades were unable to save them. Now a temple stands here to honour their memories, a fire stoked by men in official uniforms and slowly smoking incense twirling into the area. We stood here in silence for a while, breathing in the heady smell of the incense and listening to the quiet chant of prayer before getting back onto our bus.

We then drove to Paradise Cave, a reportedly beautiful cave that extends into the darknesss for over thirty kilometres. Incredibly expensive six-day treks take you on a subterranean jungle adventure through this system – definitely one for the future if I one day have the money! That day we would only be venturing in about a kilometre. Descending into the darkness as your eyes adjust, you become aware not only of how huge the cave is but how jaw-droppingly beautiful it is. When you think of caves, you often think of dark, damp places but this was not the case with Paradise Cave, a place that actually lives up to the hyperbole of the guidebooks. It is like an underground cathedral, glittering stalagtites hanging like monstrous chandeliers from the ceiling and stalagmite towers rising from the depths. The wooden boardwalk is lit with lots of little lights that twinkle in the darkness, giving the feeling of some kind of magical underground fairy grotto. Beautiful limestone formations, intricate like geological christmas trees, rise up on either side and patches of rose coloured stone shimmer in the light. It is enchanting and unlike anywhere I have ever been. Definitely worth the money so far (also pleased to see rubbish bins outside and signs asking visitors to put their litter in the bins – progress!).

We stopped for lunch outside Dark Cave – a huge banana leaf platter of roll-your-own fresh spring rolls, rice, herbs, vegetables, omlette: delicious! To get to Dark Cave, we had to first zipline 400m across bright blue water, then swim to the entrance of the cave. Then we walked, barefoot, into the cave itself, our headtorches lighting our way in the blackness (true to its name, Dark Cave was incredibly dark!). We went down a passageway that got narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier until we emerged into a tiny cavern that was essentially a mud bath. It was like swimming in chocolate, wallowing around like a hippo, absolutely covered in mud. It was unexpectedly buoyant too; the mud was so thick that you could lie back and your feet would just pop back up again! It reminded me a bit of those nightmares where you try to run but you can’t, but it was real and happening and amazing. The experience was surreal and hilarious – picture it: half naked, laughing your head off in a tiny cave of people you’ve never met but who are your best friends in this almost drunken state of muddiness. All in all a good time (10/10, would recommend to a friend, which we did repeatedly). After attempting to get all of the mud off in a pool at the entrance of the cave (our guide sent me back in again as I hadn’t done a good enougg job), we kayaked back to the other side of the river where we got to go on another zipline before immersing our feet in a tea bath with a glass of Dalat red (not good wine).

That evening we drank beers and shared stories with Irish, Swiss, Dutch, Danish, Austrian…the spectrum of nationalities you meet while travelling, some of whom we’d met further down south in Vietnam and who we kept bumping into for the rest of the time in Phong Nha. This is one of the things I love best about travelling – it’s really funny. You’ll meet someone in Vietnam, for example, then continue to see them in Laos or Cambodia in a variety of random places. It brings a degree of familiarity to a strange place, a feeling of having a friend in a place where everyone is a stranger.


Hué, the old imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, sprawls on the banks of the Suong Hung about halfway up Vietnam. Arriving in the city was a bit of a shock to the system after pretty little Hoi An – it is large and looming and rather soulless. But we were not there for the city; we were there for the tombs and temples, the palaces and pagodas on the North side of the river and so it was on bikes that we pedalled our way over the Perfume River to the Imperial Citadel. We nervously joined the flow of traffic over Trang Tien bridge and, miraculously, flowed with it. Nobody signals, everybody honks their horns, but there is a definite rhythm to the traffic in Vietnam as it flows loudly along. It is invigorating being part of it.

We cycled under the blackened old arched outer wall of the citadel and parked our bikes next to a line of bronze cannons. We then wandered over to the Ngo Mon Gateway, the entrance to the Imperial Enclosure, where a huge picture of Ho Chi Minh hangs by multicolured flags, reflected in the surface of the moat. It is impressive, looming above the tourists gawking up at it, a handful of other tourists peering down from its two tiered elaborate roofs. We paid our entrance and entered the citadel. Thai Hoa palace is the first thing you see, where the emperor would have greeted visitors from his gilted golden throne. We crossed to it over a bridge lined with flowers across a pond of bright orange koi. Dragon mosaics curl across the roof, coiled and fierce in blues, reds and greens. You climb the steps and enter and stare in silence at what might possibly be the grandest room you’ve ever been in. Scarlet and gold laquered ironwood columns stand proudly down the room, the walls covered with more scarlet and gold calligraphy, grids of ancient poetry. There are a few translations but the symbols far outnumber these, telling unknown stories that I wish I could understand. The throne that stands, elevated, between the columns, is truly fit for an emperor, huge and gold and intricate. The building has been massively restored and an animation in the next room shows what it would have looked like in its heyday, at the height of the Nguyen dynasty, robed mandarins lining the walkways. It makes you realise how much the buildings have been restored (and makes you wish you could go back in time), especially when you step out the other side of the palace and you see the buildings that haven’t been so lucky.

Hué’s imperial enclosure was a cultural victim of the French and American wars – it was badly damaged to the extent that only 20 of 148 buildings are still standing. Unesco-sponsored restoration, reconstruction and conservation work is still ongoing. In the future, maybe the buildings of the ancient citadel will stand, elaborate and proud, once again. But for now the enclosure is a place of contrasts – grandiose golden palaces stand next to crumbling ruins, ornate arches lead to overgrown gardens and horses hoofs echo in empty courtyards. Saying this, a fair number of structures still stand and the enclosure is big enough that you can get lost, walking through ancient halls feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. It is also large enough to escape the groups of tourists at Thai Hoa palace to peacefully navigate your way through the rubble and royal residences, the only sound a fountain in the distance and your own thoughts, lost in a rich daydream of what this place would have looked like before it was scarred by war. Before we left, we climbed up onto the citadel’s walls to look out over the forbidden city, where the Vietnamese flag rippled in the currents of the wind, bright red against a pale grey sky.

We spent the afternoon getting lost and discovering quiet temples, not a tourist in sight, doors slightly ajar and singing voices carried on a soft breeze to where we stood with our bikes. This was in stark contrast to the bustling market place we visited to buy some fruit. It was crammed with people and sold pretty much everything – bright fruit and veg, fish still flopping, glittering fake jewellery, clothes of all patterns, electronics, stationary, DIY…you name it, they had it. Our final stop was Thien Mu Pagoda, a few kilometres cycling, on a hill which overlooks the Perfume River. It has its roots in legend: long ago, an old woman appeared on the hill and prophecised that a great lord would build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Of course, upon hearing this, the lord of the day ordered the construction of Thien Mu ‘Heavenly Lady’. Many lords have added to the site since, including an impressive 21m-tall octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, its seven stories each representing a manushibuddha (Buddha in human form) or step to enlightenment, depending on who you ask. Inside the pagoda, incense swirled and a monk sat quietly chanting and occasionally hitting a bronze gong in meditation.

As we cycled back to the empty sprawling city, it started to rain. It felt almost like we had pedalled through time – from the ancient and spritual to the modern and spiritless. Don’t expect much from the city of Hué itself (apart from its cuisine – fried nem and bun bo hue – if you know where to look) but its rich history and beautiful buildings of the past are certainly something to discover.