On route to Hanoi. Hoi An, Hue, Phong Nha Caves and Tam Coc. Four top destinations in Vietnam

On route to Hanoi. Hoi An, Hue, Phong Nha Caves and Tam Coc. Four top destinations in Vietnam

25th May to 04 June 2019
Hoi An

11 long days in Hoi An. Having researched online about getting a new visa for Vietnam it seems I have to do a border run to Laos. I’ll also need a letter of invitation as I’m asking for a 3 month visa to ensure I have enough time to explore the North.
The options are go with the local bus, hire a motorbike or go with a visa run company in comfort. Fortunately I stumble across a blog that recommends one of these agents, Lynn Nguyen in Da Nang. I send them a message and they have a visa run scheduled for the 3rd of June. They do all the paperwork for the Laos Visa, the letter of invitation for Vietnam and the Vietnam visa application. They’ll also pick you up and drop you off at your hotel in a nice comfortable minibus that isn’t an overcrowded local bus or an arse numbing motorbike. So that’s all sorted and on the day everything goes smoothly as I and 11 other travellers, teachers and expats spend some quality time together on the border run.

So apart from relaxing and getting the visa there’s a bit of drinking, a Vietnamese friends 3 year old daughters birthday party, his birthday party, watching the Cricket World Cup and some sightseeing.

Hoi An Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its famous for its many tailor shops and its quaint old-town architecture, Buddhist shrines, French-colonial houses, art galleries and old canals. In the evenings the Riverside and old town are lit with colourful lanterns and boat rides on the river are a top attraction.

I also take a ride out to Son Trà (monkey mountain) Peninsula in Da Nang.
Son Tra Mountain is a breath-taking national park that stands 693 metres above sea level. The verdant mountain is also surrounded by pristine beaches such as Bai Bac, Bai Nam, Bai But, and Tien Sa Beach. Monkey Mountain was a prominent observation base during the American-Vietnam War, housing two radar domes that are now run by the Vietnamese military as well as a helicopter pad, which makes for a cool lookout point.

The reason it’s called monkey mountain is because its home to some rare species such as rhesus macaques, long-tailed macaques, pygmy slow loris, and red-shanked douc langurs.

There’s also an amazing Buddha statue and pagoda set in beautiful gardens at the base of the peninsular.

Wednesday 5th June 2019
Hoi An to Phu Loc
Distance 90 km
Total 26739 km

Well it’s time to hit the road again. I’ve got my 3 month visa and Vietnam awaits. Today is a special day too as I’ll be climbing up and over the Hai Van Pass just north of Da Nang. This section of road was made famous by Jeremy Clarkson in the Top Gear Vietnam Special. As he puts it, the road is, “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world.”
The most spectacular section spans 21 kilometers and comprises a series of hairpin turns, steep inclines and breath-taking vistas. Reaching a peak elevation of 496 meters, Hai Van Pass is often shrouded in a mist that rises from the sea.

But first as I cycle through Da Nang along the sea front I’m amazed by the amount of people out on bikes, or doing calisthenics and group dance routines along the promenade. It seems everyone is out to enjoy the early morning cool and catch the sunrise over Cham Island.

At the far north of Da Nang I pull over near a large group of cyclists to take some sunrise pics. I turn around and there’s an old guy struggling to sit on my trike with his legs in the wrong place. I get him sorted then gave to wait 15 minutes whilst everyone gets a picture sat on the trike. Oh well the sunrise was beautiful!

A couple of kilometers later and I leave Da Nang behind and start climbing the pass. It’s only 9.5km to the top and I’m pleasantly surprised that it only takes 2 hours to get there! Along the way I stop at a roadside shack and admire the views along the coast whilst sweating profusely and guzzling Coke, hydration God of the touring cyclist!

Finally at the top I don’t linger long as I know I’ve still got some mileage to do today. At least the next 12 km is downhill!!

And that’s pretty much the excitement over for the day. Another 28km along the main road including two ‘no bicycles allowed’ tunnels (thankfully very short at 300m!), well I’m on a trike so the sign doesn’t apply, right??

My accommodation today is in a little village straddling the main road, I hope the traffic noise won’t keep me awake!

Thursday 6th June 2019
Phu Loc to Hue
Distance 67 km
Total 26806 km

Ahh a fitful sleep last night, not the noise, but from my tired legs still twitching (was there a big hill yesterday?) Today’s ride is totally off the main road. In fact the first 32km is on a rough concrete road around the eastern edge of Dam Cau Hai lagoon.

In the dark I can see many small fishing vessels out on the lagoon each with a powerful lamp. As the dawn approaches I’m travelling up a 40km long sandbar that at its widest is 5km wide and only 500 meters at its narrowest. Half way up is the village of Am Bang. This is the location of the City of Ghosts. In a bizarre variation of keeping up with the Joneses, the villagers compete to build increasingly lavish and elaborate tombs for their ancestors, and even sometimes for family members who have not yet died.The graveyard, with its brilliantly colored structures built on white sand, stretches along the side of the road for 3 kilometers.

Some of the mausoleums could be mistaken for mansions. Regal stone lions abound and glittering mosaic dragons adorn the roof-ridges.Some 90 percent of the villagers have overseas relatives, who send money home, much of which is used to build tombs. Some grave markers include information on the building costs alongside the names and dates. Typical figures are between twenty-five and fifty thousand US dollars. The homes of the villagers remain humble, but the dead are resting in luxury.

The City of Ghosts is absolutely stunning, and as I continue up the coast I can see that it’s not just confined to the cemetery. In fact between houses, at the side of the road, there are tombs everywhere. Even in school grounds and on hillocks in the marsh!
On the way into Hue I finally manage to find somewhere to break my half million dong banknote, now I can have a coffee. It’s also right next to Thành Toan tile covered bridge set in a quaint old village. Bonus!

Finally I arrive in Hue,  ancient Capital of Đàng Trong Kingdom from 1738 to 1775 and of the Nguyễn Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. A major attraction is its vast, 19th-century citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theater. The city was also the battleground for the Battle of Huế, which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

Time for a shower, clothes wash and snooze before sightseeing.

Sightseeing actually only consists of visiting the Emporers Tomb and Hues Abandoned Water Park. All under the threat of big black storm clouds.

There are 3 emporer tombs in Hue, but I only visited one. The tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh of the Nguyen dynasty, the 12th emperor who ruled from 1916 to 1931. It’s located on the slope of Chau Chau Mountain which is about 10 km from Hue City.

Khai Dinh Tomb is the most recent and costly among the other Nguyen imperial tombs.  The construction took 11 years to complete, from 1920 to 1931.  The design of the tomb reflects French influence; it resembles of an ancient European castle with a mixture of Vietnamese construction materials.  The most prominent feature of it is the three high terraces that are connected by sets of 127 steps.

The notables here are the statues of  military soldiers and horses on the second terrace and Thien Dinh Palace which is located on the highest terrace.

Thien Dinh palace is where the emperor is buried and worshiped.  Intricate painting of the ceiling  overlooks the bronze statue of the emperor which was sculpted in Paris and brought over.  The inner walls are beautifully designed with porcelain dragons and bamboos.


As for the Abandoned Waterpark, looking like something drawn from the nightmarish imaginings of the latest Stephen King thriller, the Ho Thuy Tien abandoned waterpark, is an eerie monument to an unrealised dream.

Since closing its doors in 2006, just two years after its unveiling, the park has fallen into a state of dereliction and graffiti covered murkiness. The exact reasons for closure remain shrouded in mystery. Today, it is a crumbling playground for adventurous backpackers, worldly trikes (me!) and local kids impervious to health and safety risks. But it’s definitely a photogenic location.

Friday 7th to Sunday 9th June 2019

Hue to Phong Nha
Distance 213 km
Total 27019 km

3 days cycling from Hue and I arrive in Phong Nha early in the morning after a short 45km on the Sunday.  After a freshen up and rest I pop over to Easy Tiger, a large hostel just down the street. There’s a pool, bar and restaurant and the food is delicious, nachos with pulled pork, and all the dips for me please.

Whilst here I research which caves I want to do. There’s tons of info at the hostel and I chat with 2 other travellers about what’s possible. I could join a tour, but it’s cheaper to use a motorcycle and go to the caves yourself.  However after eating I realise I’m not going to have time today to fully enjoy any of the caves so instead decide to check out a couple of places on my map. The first is a short ride down the river and it’s called Bomb Crater Bar. Then another marker in my map is ‘The Bar With Cold Beer’, unnecessarily this is down a long dirt track full of potholes and ruts, but the beer is indeed cold and the views familiarly good! The rest of the day passes by like beer bottles floating down the Mekong!!

Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th June 2019

Phong Nha Caves

After a lovely ride through the countryside I arrive at Paradise cave. Having paid my entry fee of  250,000 dong I then walk a kilometer and a half up a gradual slope whilst watching all the Chinese and Vietnamese tourists being ferried up in electric carts. Admitted I could have paid for this pleasure, but why bother when I can sweat my tits off walking up through the jungle path. I, however, do get the last laugh because from the cart park there is a very very steep climb up a concrete path and steps to the entrance of the cave. I’m soon marching past all these lazy cart people and manage to pass a good number before getting to the Cave entrance.  Then its a steep stepped descent into the cool gloom of Paradise cave. Surrounded by forested karst peaks, this remarkable cave system extends for 31km, though most people only visit the first kilometre. The scale is breathtaking, as I descend further down the wooden staircases into a cathedral-like space with colossal stalagmites and glimmering stalactites.  Newly discovered the cave is considered the largest complex of caves in the world. The system of interconnected caves was discovered in 2005 by scientists from the British Cave Research Association with the help of a local man. It’s impressive!

Back out in the sweltering forest it’s time to go get wet and dirty at Dark Cave. A short ride back towards Phong Nha there is a complex on the river. Here there’s a high tower where tourists can zip line 400 meters across the river to the entrance of the Cave. Well why not! I have to sit in a queueing area for a while as they like to take in groups of 12 or more. Meanwhile, bus loads of Vietnamese tourists are being processed through whilst I wait for some more foreigners to arrive. After about 30 minutes there’s a group of us, Brits, Israeli, Aussie and Swiss all harnessed up and ready to go. We climb the tower and after the last of the Vietnamese group go I’m first in our group. Apart from having to lift my feet high enough to miss some trees (I didn’t notice the lightweight locals having to do this, must be a lot of sag in the cable!!) it’s an exciting ride and rather abrupt stop at the other end, it’s only thanks to the assistant that I’m not swinging back out over the river racing backwards towards the next slider!!

I wait as the rest of our group of 20 come over. Then it’s a short swim to the entrance of Dark Cave. Wow, the water seems freezing after the heat of the jungle, but I’m soon relishing its coolness.

First discovered in 1990 and opened up not long after that Dark Cave is the smaller version of the Son Doong Cave. The reason for the name is that there is no artificial light installed inside the cave and with its total length of 6 kilometers it’s nothing but darkness! Moreover, the rocks inside the cave are dark, some gray some black. Fortunately we’ve been issued with helmets and head torches. Well, half the group has, we have to wait at the entrance for a group of locals to exit so we can steal their helmets to ensure everyone is health and safety regulated!!  Inside the cave there are many unique things to see and experience! There is a natural mud bath at the end of one of the narrow passages and there are many ancient fossils to be found. The fossils are over a  million years old! The natural mud bath is very good for the skin, and compared to a mud-bath in a spa this is just a fraction of the price. But to be honest all we do is cover ourselves in mud graffiti (there’s cocks and balls drawn on everyone!) and quite a few of the group make clay models of cocks and balls to display on the Cave walls, watching the girls mould these effigies  between their slick hand is a tad erotic, especially as we’re all naked apart from a few skimpy swim suits!! Enough! We all reverse back down the narrow, slippy dark passage and wash off our mud and dirty thoughts in one of the caves dark pools.

Back out in the open we paddle in canoes across to the visitor centre where there are some high wire assault courses and zip lines out over the river. Not to be outdone I’m up there with all the youngsters swinging around like an ape and having a jolly good time, what ho!!

On Tuesday it’s off to Phong Nha Botanical Gardens and Gio waterfalls. The Botanic Garden is a recommended stop on a gorgeous scenic ride through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, as it’s a great way to experience the park’s natural beauty on your own. Two well-marked (and rubbish free!) trails lead through the forest and one of the highlights is modestly sized but picture-perfect Thac Gio Waterfall. Unfortunately the waters a bit low at this time of year but they have some pictures up displaying it in all its glory so you know exactly what you missed. Having said that it’s still a beautiful sight and the walk around the park is quiet if a trifle hot. For a laugh, you can also step into the display centre for a gander at the few dried leaves, random rocks and a horrendously bad diorama of stuffed or fake animals!

Wednesday 12th June 2019
Phong Nha to Ky Phong
Distance 97km
Total 27116 km

Just a lot of easy riding today but I stopped short of 100km as there was a guest house, (in Vietnamese they are called Nha Nghi) and it was getting insanely hot. As I’ve mentioned I’m getting up early everyday, and I’m normally on the road by 3am or shortly after. This gives me a solid 2 hours of riding in the dark, and if I’m lucky about this time, just as its getting light I’ll hit a village or town and I can stop for breakfast, invariably a Banh Mi and a coffee. Then as the light builds it’s always nice to see everyone waking up, preparing their shops or cafe for opening and just riding along, greeting and smiling lots of friendly Vietnamese people. From 5 to 7 it’s still nice and cool and if it’s flat ill have done at a minimum 60km. But then it starts getting hotter and my rest/drink stops get more frequent. By 9 or 10 the sun is really hot and it’s only the breeze from my speed that keeps me cool. If I stop I instantly break out in a huge sweat. It’s also worth noting that the fake Under Armour shorts that I purchased in Cambodia before setting off have definitely got a very low UPF factor as I’m getting burnt through them. I’m now having to apply sunscreen to the top of my thighs where they would normally be covered up by the shorts!!

Thursday 13th June 2019
Ky Phong to Vinh
Distance 88 km
Total 27204 km

Another easy, flat cycle day and I finish off in Vinh, quite a large busy city. There have been a ton of Catholic Churches all along the route today. Great big double steeple churches, ornate churches, just lots of them. Weird as I didn’t realise how much the French played a part in shaping the religious contours of Vietnam.

As I cycled into Vinh I came off a roundabout and I was heading down the street when a car backed into the street. Normally I’d be OK but I was checking the map so only caught it at the last secknd and ended up on 2 wheels as I swerved around the back of it, narrowly missing clipping it. Which is a good thing as it was an Aston Martin sports car! The young Vietnamese lad who was driving was very apologetic even though the norm in Vietnam is to enter the main road from side streets without looking! It’s amazing watching so many scooters coming in from roads on my right and joining the flow of traffic without even a glance at what might be barrelling down on them.  No wonder the accident rate is so high here.

Friday 14th June 2019
Vinh to Thành Hoa
Distance 132km
Total 27336 km

Wow, another 100km plus day. Apart from the heat it was an easy flat ride today.

Saturday 15th June 2019
Thanh Hoa to Tam Coc
Distance 65 km
Total 27401 km

Ahh Tam Coc, last time I was here in January this year it was a cold and misty place. Now it’s sweltering like the rest of northern Vietnam! But at least this time the views won’t be shrouded in clag and I’ll be able to do some of the stuff I missed last time.

I get booked into the same hostel as I stayed in last time and the owner remembers me and is ready with the ever present Vietnamese smile and warm greeting. After a rest and freshen up I decide to take it easy today and just have a pootle around town, the rice fields and have a sundowners overlooking the river.

Very pleasant.

Sunday 16th June 2019
Tam Coc

Last time I was here I did a boat ride that starts at Trang An, this time I’m going to do the one that starts in the village itself.  Unlike Trang An this is more of a out and back ride along the river as it winds between the karst cliffs and paddy fields. There are also a number of caves to go through that have been cut out underneath the hills.

Tam Coc actually means 3 caves and is part of the Hoa Lo mountain range area. Hoa Lo was once the Capital of an ancient 12 or 13th Century dynasty. The rocks that rise all around us show wear about 2 or 3 meters above ground and its believed that this whole area was under the sea for a long period, hence the wear and grottoes that were formed under the mountains. The crystal clear waters of the Ngo Dong river now provide a tourist wonderland to travel upon. The whole river seems packed with the low walled rowing skiffs. There’s lots of tourists even in the baking heat. Most of the women rowing the boats have an umbrella to shelter under as they paddle us along using their feet to manipulate the oars.

I also squeeze in a visit to the temple at Bich Dong. This temple sits into the cliff face and is super quiet and chilled.

About 6km from the village of Tam Coc is Hang Mua, a Cave and hill that overlooks the surrounding countryside and the Ngo Dong River. It’s here that I head in the late afternoon for sunset. Apart from the waterlogged Mua Cave at the base of the stand alone hill there is a number of temples on top of the hill and also a sleeping dragon sculpture. These can be reached by 500 steep stone steps that zig zag up the mountainside. The 360 degree views from the top are spectacular. There are quite a few tourists up here all clam bering over the sharp rocks and trying to get the best selfies with the dragon that sits on the very top! The views down along the river valley are stunning as well. Luckily I brought up a tin of beer in a bag of ice (make that cold water now!) to enjoy the sunset by!!

Tuesday 18th June 2019
Tam Coc to Hanoi
Distance 93 km
Total 27495 km

Yes!! It’s overcast, and raining!! Amazing! That’s right, I’m happy to be cycling in the rain. I wasn’t looking forward to cycling into the bedlam that is the inner rings of hell, I mean Hanoi. But at least the rain will keep the infernal fires to a moderate temperature. As a matter of fact even with the overcast and rain the temperature is still around 29 degrees celcius but the cooling effects of all that water make it seem much lower. It hasn’t stopped the speed and volume of traffic, but does make for some careful negotiating of the road way as any puddle (and there are a lot of them) could be hiding a pothole or worse. In fact the local motorbike traffic also steers well clear of them so I fit right in. I’d estimated I’d reach Nicks house where I’m staying on the southern edge of Hanoi at about 10 or 11am. But with the traffic pulling me along at a greater speed than normal and the cooler temperatures I arrive by 9am!

Nick is an old army buddy of mine and has relocated out here to Vietnam and lives in a lovely house with his wife Ha and her teenage son, Chung.

We had a fab time when I was last here in January and I obviously didn’t do anything wrong as they have invited me back to stay again!!

Time for a few days off before the great journey to the mountains in the north begins. Sounds like something from the Lord of the Rings!

Thanks for reading. The next blog will be all about Hanoi, both in January and this visit in June. Just got to write it now!!

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