After much hype we finally decided on this long time bucket list destination. The plan was to see as much as possible, so we booked a whole month trip. Starting from the south we visited the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc for some beach time. We flew north to Hanoi, took a bus and a boat to Cat Ba island, another bus to Ninh Binh and a private transfer to Moc Chau's green tea hills. This was our northernmost point as we turned around due to some health issues and lousy weather forecast. Reaching Mu Cang Chai was our plan, there are some beautiful rice terraces and landscape in general, but it wasn't looking promising. We took a flight from Hanoi to Hue and finished the gig in beautiful Hoi An.
Ho Chi Minh City
We arrived in the evening, took a taxi from the airport and got to our hostel in District 1. The hostel was located in a back alley and looked far worse than on booking.com. 4th floor, crappy aircon and dirty bedsheets. We were jetlagged and hungry so we quickly tried to find something to eat . The only thing we knew was Pho, so we gave it a try. It wasn’t particularly tasty but it got us through the night. 333 beer was better. In the morning we went around again hoping for some cool breakfast. The receptionist recommended a place where we got a shitty panini. Soon enough we were questioning the whole amazing Vietnamese food thing. We left HCMC after one night. Huge cities are just not our thing, though I’m sure there’s plenty to see there. We took a sleeper Futa bus to Can Tho. That took us three hours. Quite cozy and perfectly on time.
As we drove towards Can Tho, the landscape turned greener and palm trees began to show. Can Tho is apparently the 4th largest city in Vietnam. I didn’t expect this. We chose it to visit the famous floating markets. We slept two nights in Casa Inn, a great choice! Very clean, large room, amazing coffee and a lovely owner. We booked a 7-hour market tour with the hostel. Didn’t really know what to expect. Two days in and our jetlag was still very present. And we were hungry all the time. There was a cake festival nearby so we checked that out. Plenty of food options, no one speaking english and we had no idea what to eat. We tried a roll with minced meat, rice and something green. We weren’t super impressed. The people were very nice and friendly though. A couple came by saying to take care because there were thieves around. Another guy came and gestured putting my backpack in the front and eventually three security guards came to us where we ate. We assumed someone sent them to us just in case. They kept smiling at us and we generally felt very safe, so they might have been overreacting a bit.
Tour. A taxi picked us up at 5 am and drove to the riverside where we hopped on a small boat. Apparently it was a private tour. Two of us on the boat, our friendly guide and the driver. We navigated through the main canal towards Cai Rang market, passed it and went on to the smaller, less known Phong Dien. After about 2 hours on the river we reached a small local community exchanging goods on their small boats. Vegetables, fruits and lottery tickets. There were some 20 boats and we comfortably manouvered between them and circled the traders to see the life on a floating market. Afterwards we went to shore and had breakfast above this very market. They cooked a rice noodle soup with beef and vegetables. And coffee. Sweet Vietnamese coffee.
We went back on the canal, visited some fruit gardens, a rice noodle factory and passed Cai Rang market again. We bought the sweetest pineapples and ate them on a trader’s boat. A nice lady offered us some salt and chili and I have to say - tastes amazing with a pineapple. We drove back through smaller canals and we were alone on the river most of the time. That was very calm. Mekong is huge, it even changes tides two times a day. Low tide however, brings out the polluted riverbeds.
When we came back we tried a local restaurant Bun Cha. Like everything else, a garage-like looking eatery. Small plastic seats and a smiling Vietnamese guy inside. 5 meal options, 4 photos, no english. We point on two photos and order two Saigon beers. Soon enough another soup was brought to our table. We mixed in some sprouts, vegetables and noodles. It tasted good but nothing special. We were getting seriously worried what we’d eat for a whole month. Somehow all the food we had just wasn’t what we expected. And we tend to eat on the safe side at the beginning of our trips to avoid any toilet adventures. There were no "clean" eateries anywhere. Just very local street food. Which is apparently the safest option.
So we decided to go on a food tour in the evening. It was a free tour with a local guy and we were supposed to meet at some hotel. The dude never came, the hotel informed us that he called in sick. Bummer. So we went around anyway. Can Tho was super busy in the evening. The roads were packed. Bright street lights everywhere. We found a BBQ place where we got our own "furnace" and cooked the food. Again we didn’t know what to order. Somehow we translated shrimps which were great. We also got some meat which could be anything really. Washed it all down with two Saigons.
We’re glad we experienced the Mekong delta, but it left me a bit blank. The main attraction were the floating markets and Phong Dien was lovely but I expected much more, especially from Cai Rang. Granted, it’s possible we were too late.
Our time in Can Tho was coming to an end. We had a great breakfast in our Casa Inn. Funny that was the best food we've had so far. Vietnamese bread, another noodle soup and coffee. A taxi took us to Can Tho airport. At first we wanted to take a bus to Rach Gia and a boat to Phu Quoc but that would take up our whole day. It would be a bit cheaper but definitely not worth it.
Phu Quoc is apparently one of the main spots for beaches in Vietnam. Keep in mind, Vietnam isn’t really a beach destination. So we weren’t expecting much. We were located on the west side at the Long Beach, which was supposed to be the nicest but quite busy.
When we arrived at our Ninila Casa they quickly told us they had no room for us and put us in their neighbours’s bungalow for two nights. It happens so we just went with it. The bungalow was nice anyway. The owners had their own restaurant and an orchard all around. We had some spring rolls for lunch and quickly ordered the dinner for later as well.
We got a motorbike and checked out the closest beach spot. Have to say I expected worse. It was quite clean and not too busy. It streched a long way north as well so we could easily find our very own spot.
We had chicken curry and beef/vegetable/noodle thing for dinner. That was delicious. They brought us a fruit platter at the end as well. Papaya, mango, watermelon and dragon fruit. All from their garden.
We went to bed quite early but couldn’t sleep quite right. There was a constant racket on the roof, probably some geckos fighting. There was also a huge storm that lasted till noon the other day so we just slept in and waited for it to pass. We came in the common area looking like zombies and got our banana pancake breakfast. Their lovely dogs kept raising their paws to get some.
The skies cleared up soon enough and we checked out another spot on the Long beach - a stretch of sand below Mango Bay resort. The water was significantly cooler that the day before. Probably because of the storm.
Our plan was to see the island a bit. We wanted to check out Starfish beach and go south one day but somehow we ended up relaxing on our beach. The weather was a bit unpredictable and we needed to unwind anyway. So Ong Lang and a book were perfect for our four days in Phu Quoc.
Last day. Woke up. Had breakfast. Rushed to the beach for an hour or two. Packed up. To the airport. Flew to Hanoi.
We arrived in the evening. Took a Grab ride to our Genial Hanoi hotel, which was really awesome. Staff spoke great english and the room was super clean.
Luka joined us shortly after and we went for a bite to eat in one of the back alleys. We tried their steak with egg street food which was ok. Not bad, not great, crazy cheap. We went for some mango juice on those plastic chairs and enjoyed the bustling night life.
Day two. Walking tour. We headed down Hang Giay street and navigated through the smaller alleys to catch a glimpse of the city life. The hidden market streets at Hang Da were the most interesting. We visited the train street, Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Thang Long Imperial Citadel.
Our last spot was St. Joseph's Cathedral with a bustling square in front. We grabbed a beer on an overlooking balcony and unwound after a hectic day of sightseeing.
We had dinner at Home Hanoi, a breathtaking french villa with some of the best food of our trip.
Cat Ba island
Next up: Cat Ba Island. We didn't want to miss the limestone geology of Halong Bay, so we opted for Cat Ba since it was less touristy. We stayed in Little Cat Ba, a nice homestay out of the main town. Amazing owners!
We liked Cat Ba town for its restaurants but visually it is nothing special.
We rented motorbikes, drove to Cat Ba National Park and climbed the Ngu Lam Peak on our second day. It was extremely hot and humid, not at all like the hikes we do at home. Nevertheless, the view was pretty awesome.
We checked out some caves on our way back, there are holes in the limestone hills all over the place. One of the main attractions is the hospital cave. Built in the sixties, the concrete bombproof cave was laid out over three stories. The shelter was equipped with access to fresh water and ventilation shafts, and there are even escape tunnels ready for the event of a quick getaway. It includes a doctors office, several recovery rooms, and a huge natural cavern that was used as a cinema room.
Cannon fort. The tunnels and gun emplacements here were first installed by the Japanese in WWII, but were also utilised by the French and Vietnamese during subsequent conflicts. We took our scooters straight to the top, although the walk up has some nice views already. It's a pretty awesome spot. We could see the beautiful Lan Ha bay, the huge floating fishing village and Ho Chi Minh monument. The path took us around the fort to see the cannons, ammunition and tunnels. There isn't much military gear left but we got the idea.
Little Cat Ba offered us a private boat trip to Lan Ha bay. The price was really fair so we took it. We started early, caught the sunrise and sailed around the limestone islands. Cai Beo floating village was especially impressive.
We met some larger tourist boats on the way but all was still asleep. Our smiling fisherman also gave us kayaks to check out a lagoon.
All in all it was a nice and peaceful trip but nothing too impressive. I've seen similar in Thailand and the Philippines. In my opinion, Lan Ha bay (or Halong for that matter) can't really hold a candle to the northern part of Palawan.
The water here looks green, unclear and generally uninviting, there's plenty of plastic pollution as well. I'm glad we skipped Halong, it's supposed to be much busier and more polluted.
Our fisherman showed us his floating home at the end. He looked really proud.
On our last day we investigated the notorious Cat Co beaches. No. 3 was probably the most crowded place I've seen in a while and No. 2 and No. 1 were closed due to construction. We took a walk around the cape, which was really nice.