A bus took us from Cat Ba directly to Tam Coc, which is the nice village we usually see on Ninh Binh photos. We slept at Mua Caves Ecolodge, just below the famous viewpoint. Our time in Ninh Binh was quite lazy and quiet, we had some bad soup for dinner which started all kinds of inconveniences.
We climbed the viewpoint on our first day, some 500 stairs probably. Super humid, but so rewarding.
In the next days we explored the rice fields and temples with a couple of scooters. I met a nice bearded monk at Thai Vi temple. He kept stroking his beard, I repeated the gesture to which he smilingly replied he is in fact Ho Chi Minh :)
Bich Dong Pagoda was especially nice, it's an ancient three-tiered cave pagoda. Some 100 stairs and a dark cave connect different pagodas with multiple statues. The views of surrounding countryside are beautiful as well.
Next day we opted for a boat ride on Tam Coc river. It looked great from above so we decided to hop on a boat and navigate through the many caves, created by the river. A nice lady paddled the boat with all three of us in it, which was kind of hard to watch. She taught us Vietnamese words for animals we met on the way, from birds, cats and frogs to pigs having a bath.
The ecolodge staff came up with a really good price for a direct ride from Ninh Binh to Moc Chau. This saved us lots of time, hassle and bus changes. Moc Chau was supposed to be our first northern stop, going further to Mu Cang Chai, but due to lousy weather and some health issues we didn't reach that far.
First of all, Moc Chau homestay was probably the worst booking choice in the history of booking choices. And it had a rating of over 9. We could barely find the homestay as there are around 10 of "Moc Chau homestays". The room was humid, the beds were just wooden planks and when the rain started pouring there was a waterfall coming in from a hole in the wall. They tried to fix it by putting a cardboard box in the hole. No chance. The owners were an older couple, extremely nice and friendly though. We communicated with google translate as the only word they knew was "happy". We tried to keep it positive and had some fun but the room really didn't deserve the rating it had.
The surrounding however, was beautiful. Tea everywhere.
On our second day we moved to the only proper hotel around as we were in need of a clean room with a nice bathroom. They also had a decent restaurant as it was extremely difficult to find a meal around. They were grilling dogs by the street as well so yeah ... We checked tripadvisor but the best rated restaurant was closed and the second one wouldn't serve us. They weren't mean at all, they just smilingly waved us out in Vietnamese, it seemed like they were preparing tables for a huge group.
We met a nice driver that took us to a larger tea plantation. The area is inhabited by different ethnic minorities and there were little Hmong girls running around the tea bushes. Moc Chau seems like the place most tourists skip. We only saw locals and Vietnamese visitors. The green tea hills are definitely worth a visit.
Then followed a very intense day of transport. We decided to turn back south, so we woke up at 3 am, took an arranged transfer from Moc Chau to Hanoi airport and caught an early flight directly to Hue. The flight was delayed for about an hour, but we managed to arrive to Hue sometime in the afternoon.
We stayed in Hotel La Perle, which was awesome. Clean room, friendly staff and amazing breakfast. The area around is also nice and very lively. I think Hue had the best selection of restaurants, even compared to Hoi An.
After a nice rest we headed out on a walking tour and visited The Imperial City of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. We passed through the citadel entrance and found an old war museum with a couple of aircrafts and tanks. The Imperial City was interesting, the architecture is definitely unique. It wasn't very crowded - granted, the heat was unbearable.
Built on a hill overlooking the Perfume River, 4km southwest of the Citadel, Thien Mu Pagoda is an iconic seven-story 21m-high octagonal tower. It's supposed to be one of the most beautiful and well-preserved religious sites in Vietnam. Construction started in 1601 and continued with extensions and renovations during the succeeding centuries.
As we shortened our time in the north we lengthened our stay in Hoi An, so our first hotel was Cristina's Hoi An in Tra Que village. It's a bit north of the old town on its own little island. It's a lovely green village of farmers. The veggies were local and the food here was one of our favourites for sure.
Cristina's was by far our favourite stay. Quite new, very clean, big room, cool pool, amazing staff. Surely it was a higher level than the rest but so worth it. The restaurant had a small menu, but everything was very well prepared. Breakfast was huge and we even had a banh mi station! Banh mi is a kind of sandwich that consists of a baguette split lengthwise and filled with various savory ingredients; veggies, eggs, grilled pork. Yum!
We took our hotel's bicycles to An Bang beach but weren't too impressed by it, let alone the massive crowds. Hoi An old town was a better target. We strolled around the streets countless times, found some cozy joints to grab coffee and even had a suit tailored.
One of the restaurants in Tra Que village that we really enjoyed was Kumquat BBQ. They offered cooking classes as well, so the three of us decided to give it a try. The master showed us all the sauces they make, we made fried spring rolls, chicken chili, three-spice chicken, salad and dressing ... It was a a great experience.
My Son temples
We met another great Grab driver that we asked for some further transfers as well. He took us on a sunrise trip to My Son, a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD. This UNESCO world heritage site is dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva. The morning was absolutely stunning and we were the first ones there.
We changed hotels after about 4 days at Cristina's, just because we had a reservation from way before. So we moved closer to the centre in Atlas Hotel. It wasn't as nice as the previous one and even more expensive which was kind of bitter. However, we were at a walking distance from the old town which was awesome.
A couple of places we especially enjoyed in the old town and around: The Hill Station (a really nice-looking old building and great service), The Espresso Station (best egg coffee in the world), Phin Coffee (another professional coffee place with a very knowledgable owner) and Nu Eatery (a very original menu and amazing food). I feel like the best places are to be discovered off the main streets. Just kind of meander through the narrow side-alleys and find a unique place!
Morning walks through the old town were my favourite. The streets were waking up, shops were still closed and no tourists in sight. We also checked out the morning market filled with smiling people and colourful produce.
Vietnam was very different from our expetations. It is still much less developed than we thought. Not a bad thing of course. The climate was fuckin' crazy though. It truly was unlike the rest of our Asian vacations. We usually like the heat, that's why we go on vacation. But it was just unbearable in Vietnam.
Number one thing in Vietnam that tourists usually complain about is the people. We read plenty of blogs saying they weren't friendly. This was crazy far from our experience. The people would be one of my main reasons for returning to this country. They proved to be really sweet and honest. For example I got cash returned, when I mistakenly paid too much without knowing. A very friendly driver in Hoi An called us friends after two rides, charged way less than the hotel transfer and refused to take our tip. No one was pushy with their product - once you say no, people leave you alone. They do have a certain pride and rightfully so, but I'd never ever call them rude.
For me the food would be the obvious minus. Maybe I expected way too much or maybe it's just not my cup of tea. I think I could eat banh mi for a month though.
I'm a bit dissapointed to have left out the north, so if I ever return I'd love to motorbike around the northern rice terraces and mountain passes.