Okay, I’m just going to start this off with what we’re all thinking: I am the worst blogger in the history of bloggers. I am aware. BUT to be fair, the Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad broke while I was traveling and I’m 100% certain that Satan himself invented typing long paragraphs on an iPad. Now that I’m finally home and have a full keyboard on my laptop (oh, the luxury), I’ll backtrack and cover everything.
After spending a few days in Hanoi and going on the Halong Bay tour, I began the next big chunk of my journey in the form of another tour: The Buffalo Run. Also run by Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel, The Buffalo Run is is a 7-day tour from Hanoi (North Vietnam) to Hoi An (South Vietnam). If you’re here because you want to know if you should do this tour, the answer is yes. I realize it seems expensive at first, especially in comparison to the 25 cent beer on every corner, but it really is completely worth it; we saw so many genuine and off-the-beaten-path things that I never would’ve made it to on my own, and the price covered all of our accommodation, transport, and most meals. Even better, our tour guide pretty much managed everything so I didn’t have to think at all, which is the perfect training wheels experience for backpacking Southeast Asia.
If you’re here because you’re interested in learning about things to do in Vietnam as you head south (other than drinking aforementioned 25 cent beer), you’re in luck. Just keep reading. And if you’re here because your friends or family who I’ve guilted into following this blog, I love you.
WARNING: verbose and overly-detailed post ahead…
Before I start, let me just say to all Americans: if you read nothing else in this post, that is okay as long as you absorb what I’m about to say.
What is the name of the continent with Australia and New Zealand? Australia, right? No. IT’S AUSTRALASIA. I shit you not, the rest of the world knows it as one thing and we decide to call it another. We have been lied to our entire lives, from the top-down. I had never even heard of this term, but it makes complete sense because it’s not like you call all of North America “The United States” just because we are a part of that continent.
1. Cuc Phuong National Park
Our journey started with a visit to monkey and turtle sanctuaries up by the National Park, which is quite legitimately the Vietnam jungle. Within 20 minutes of arriving, I had seen enough steriod-sized spiders and other bugs to last me a lifetime, blissfully unaware that I would soon be sleeping and eating next to them.
After finishing the sanctuaries, we got bicycles and went on a “casual ride” to where we would be sleeping much further into the jungle. If you’re detecting a hint of sarcasm when I say “casual ride”, you’re not wrong… I couldn’t even finish, partially because of my asthma, but mostly because I’m a lazy, out-of-shape shithead. Honestly, I thought I was dying, so I was very happy to jump on the back seat of a motorbike with our tour guide Thuy. Here, the views of everyone else’s suffering were much more pleasant. We took a break from the bike ride to hike to a cave where the bodies of three prehistoric men had been excavated. We explored deep into the caves, climbing up a bunch of very steep metal ladders and stairs without handrails, with flashlights for our only light. At one point we crawled all the way out to the back upper lip of the cave, where we sat on boulders perched precariously above of a 200+ foot drop-off into the trees.
After more biking, we arrived at our home in the jungle. Rachel and I promptly set up our mosquito nets, and continued to shit ourselves over the shear volume of bitey, stingy, and creepy-crawly things around us. When I opened the window to my room to let some air in (air conditioners only worked from 10pm to 6am, so the rest of the time we chilled in a lovely 95 degree swamp), I watched two huge spiders crawl over my bed, and even more scamper around the floor. Fast forward to dinner, past the huge spiders on the rafters above, past three bottles of vodka, and next thing you know, good ole Jimmy is injured! We retire for the night. The next day, we hike to a thousand year old tree.
(At this point it is safe to say that I finally understand the real meaning behind “pouring sweat”…literally, it was running off of us from every pore in powerful, distinct streams. I’ve never experienced anything like it.)
2. Trang An
We board a mini-bus and leave the jungle, bound for our next stop: Trang An, a sister-site to Halong Bay. We took a paddle-boat tour of a series of temples and pagodas that you can only reach by water, propelled by the rowing of one woman seated behind us. The tour was nearly five hours, and she rowed the entire time, steering us through caves and passageways that were so small we had to lay down in order to keep our heads, and so narrow that two little boats couldn’t fit through at once, prompting more than a couple traffic jams. It was hot, beautiful, and made for some great team bonding.
3. Nimh Binh
This technically wasn’t a stop on our tour, just a place to have a shower and dinner before grabbing a bus to Phong Nha. I include it because it is the first, and maybe only, time that something went wrong on our trip. Our decked out and comfortable Boomerang Bus had been overbooked, so instead we got last minute tickets for a local sleeper bus. (A sleeper bus is a regular bus with three lengthwise rows of sleeping bunks.) I’m glad it happened because we had a very genuine and local experience, but I definitely do not want to relive that smelly, sweaty, cramped 10 hours again. Plus, each time I woke up, the Vietnamese guy on the bunk next to me was staring at me…soooooo yeah.
4. Phong Nha National Park
We drove by minibus up to Paradise Cave, an incredible 1km cave that used to be the ocean floor. There is a much bigger cave to explore (30km) but it’s nearly $1000 and you need some type of license, so that was out of the question. While driving to the cave, our tour guide Jonno pointed out that there had been a decent amount of land combat in this area during the Vietnam war. This was of particular interest to me because my grandfather fought there. Seeing the jungle in person and imagining fighting in its depths blew my mind – the jungle is overwhelming, disjointing, and genuinely terrifying enough from afar and without weapons, so it’s hard to imagine what it was like as an American soldier without experience in guerrilla warfare.
After the cave, we visited an incredible natural spring and tried to shake the heat with a swim. Obviously, that didn’t happen, because you can’t beat the heat in Vietnam. You just can’t. We drove out to a random road then went for a long walk through a rural village to find The Pub with Cold Beer. This was a highlight of the trip for me – the scenery was incredible, the locals were beyond friendly, and I distinctly remember feeling like I had nothing to do and nowhere to be and nothing to stress about, which was a very welcome change from my life back home. After a couple hours of pool, arm wrestling, playing games on my iPad with two little girls, and drinking plenty of beer, we walked back in the darkness, grabbed dinner, and knocked out for the night.
5. DMZ and tunnels
At 7:30am we made our way to the Demilitarized Zone, where we got to partake in a demolition. Vietnam’s history is littered with war and unfortunately, their land is quite literally littered with reminders in the shape of unexploded land mines, artillery rounds, etc. If left, many farmers and animals could be (and have been) injured, so the Norwegian People’s Aid runs an organization that sweeps for items and then destroys them. We had the opportunity to destroy 13 items, and then take some of the shrapnel as a souvenir. They even let us actually hit the button to trigger the explosion!
Later, we went to a small coastal village to explore the tunnels they created and lived in so that they could combat the war. Ingenious, really. Our tour guide was an old crippled man, about 4’3″, who was born in the tunnels and lived there for six years. I imagine he was so short because of the environment he grew up in – at 5’3″, I had to bend at the waist in order to walk through the tunnels. As we walked through them, there were rooms labeled “maternity room” and “bathroom”, none of which looked any different from the others – they were all cramped, tiny little holes in the tunnels. I’ve never seen anything like it, and to say it was a humbling experience is an understatement.
Hue was a turning point for me in two ways. First, it was the first place that we didn’t really have a schedule for and could just relax. Second, it’s where I met the people that I ended up spending the rest of my travels with (more on them later, promise.) Apparently I actually met them the first night in Hue at a bar called Brown Eyes, but I have zero recollection of this so I’m sticking with the fact that we met the next day on our way to a secluded beach. We spent all day there – playing volleyball in the ocean, soccer on the beach, making fun of each other – completely ignorant to the fact that we’d basically become family in the near future. This is the day that the boys discovered I didn’t know what a Mars bar was, despite having lived in England.
7. Hai Van Pass
That same group of three boys joined us on what was absolutely my favorite day of all time: a nine hour motorbike journey down the coastline from Hue to Hoi An. Top Gear’s Vietnam special featured this exact road trip, and I had been looking forward to this day since I first left for my trip. I won’t waste my breath with words other than “it was spectacular”, as I think pictures would better explain my experience. (Trust me, though, the pictures/videos don’t do it justice.)
Oh and fun fact: I was a passenger during this whole ride, driven around by my group mate Michael. Other than the beautiful scenery, the ride was fairly uneventful (which is good, because “eventful” in regards to a motorbike ride is not a good thing.) But there was one little hitch… in the beginning, he gave me his wallet so I put it in my backpack. Well, turns out it’s pretty easy to lose a wallet when you’re unzipping your backpack to get sunscreen out… Thank God Jonno and Kurt doubled back and were able to find it, because I had offered to buy Michael’s drinks for the rest of the trip!
8. Hoi An
We arrived safely in Hoi An, hopped in the pool of a hostel/hotel run by a Buffalo Run tour guide, and chilled out. (This is where we met Izzie, the manager, who is incredible and ended up becoming a member of our family.) After grabbing our last meal as a tour group (plus the three boys and Izzie), we went to Infinity Club and took advantage of happy hour. Half off redbull/vodkas PLUS get a free whiskey/coke when you order two? Yes, please.
At this point, the tour was over, which was a really strange realization for all of us. What has happened since then, you may be asking? (Or maybe not, since this was already annoyingly long.)
Well, that’s another post entirely.