Hi guys! We’re Brendon & Hayley @true_routes, a kiwi couple on the move.
Born and raised in New Zealand, we spent the last two years living and working in Zürich Switzerland. As with every kiwi on their OE, we spent most of our free time traveling around Switzerland and the rest of Europe (20 countries to be exact!) But after six years in the corporate world we’ve decided that it’s time for a break. In November we put everything we own into storage, threw some clothes into a backpack and started traveling full time. http://true-routes.com/
A ONE MONTH ROAD TRIP THROUGH VIETNAM
THE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIP (WINTER EDITION)
If you followed our journey on Instagram you’ll know that this trip was a mix of getting off the beaten track to visit local villages while still making it to the main towns. We stayed in comfortable, modest accommodation along the way and found some epic roads to drive. No dormitories, no party hostels, no luxury accommodation. We stayed in a combination of modest hotels, guesthouses and homestays with an average price per night of USD20-25 for both of us (excluding Bai Tu Long Bay and Phu Quoc). Any accommodation that we highly recommend are noted in our guide and we also note anything that we would do differently and places we would get to in summer.
Our time in Vietnam started in Hanoi where we spent a few days getting motorbike ready. This was in between an overnight cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay and also a few days in Luang Prabang. Despite all of the chaos we fell in love with this city straight away.
If you’ve ever been to Hanoi you’ll know exactly what it’s like to cross a street in the old town quarter, or in fact anywhere in the city. We actually felt safer being on the motorbike than we did as pedestrians!
It’s a city with a great vibe to stroll the streets and take it all in (stroll probably isn’t the right word as it involves you walking on the roads dodging traffic because the sidewalks are for parked scooters only). The narrow streets are all arranged by trade, the locals sit outside the shop entrances on their tiny seats cooking their meals on a hot plate, there’s a train track running through the city with houses either side, not to mention families of five driving through town on scooters. Despite all of the tourists, this was one city where we were still able to appreciate the locals and their day to day life. Oh and don’t forget the egg coffee!
WHAT TO SEE
Hoàn Kiếm Lake – located in the middle of Hanoi, its hard to miss if you’re wandering the streets. Take the bridge across to the Ngoc Son Temple.
Visit the train tracks running through the city with residents on either side. We actually stumbled across this walking back to our hotel and decided to take some cool photos, only to realize that everyone else that’s visited Hanoi has done the exact same thing! Head there in the afternoon (from around 2pm) to watch the train go past.
Do an overnight cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay (details below).
Orchid’s Spa – Hayley needed her toes to be in top shape before getting on the motorbike. Make sure you get the Spa Pedicure, it’s 90 minutes and it was so good that Hayley nearly fell asleep.
One of the highlights of our entire Vietnam trip was an overnight cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay. Like we said, we like to avoid crowds and get off the beaten track, so this was the perfect way to experience Halong Bay without the hundred or so other boats. Only 10% of all the tourist boats make it to Bai Tu Long Bay, the sister bay which means it’s still very untouched. We only ever saw a handful of boats at any one time, we explored by kayak with only our group of 8, and we got to see many fishing villages and families living on their fishing boats (unfortunately tourism in Halong Bay has forced most of the fishing boats out of the bay). We were recommended to go with Indochina Junk from friends of ours and for a luxury cruise, we couldn’t fault a thing. If you have the choice then go for the two-night option, we were told you get taken to some very remote spots. We went with the one-night cruise. The best part was the food, the chefs are so talented and we had some of the best Pho we’ve ever had in Vietnam as part of our breakfast.
When you’re picking your cruise there’s a couple of things to bear in mind. Firstly, a 2 day, 1-night cruise is really only 24 hours onboard which is why we recommend the 3 day, 2-night cruise if you can. Secondly, no matter what way you do it, a cruise in Halong Bay is going to be an expensive part of your trip. Do your research and weigh up the costs with what you’re paying for. We didn’t mind paying more to go with Indochina Junk knowing we were getting incredible service, delicious food, luxury cabins and an unforgettable experience. We went with the four-room, eight-person boat which was perfect for a relaxing getaway. Indochina Junk also has larger boats if you want a party experience or even a private boat for two.
We booked directly with Indochina Junk as we wanted a breakdown of costs by boat over a range of dates (we were keeping an eye on the weather). They will ask you for a deposit upon booking and then you will need to visit their office in Hanoi Old Quarter at least the day before to pay the balance. You can also find them through booking.com. They will pick you up right from your hotel in Hanoi and drop you off there afterwards in a very comfortable minivan!
Name: Indochina Junk
Cruise: Prince Junk, 4 cabin, 2-day, 1-night cruise
Phong Nha was the first real stop of our trip and we took three days to get there. We skipped Cat Ba Island and Ninh Binh due to weather, these would be two stops we would do in the summer months.
The national park has been designated as a UNESCO site and is known for the mountains, underground rivers and a vast network of caves. Actually, it’s here that you will find the largest cave in the world, the Sơn Đoòng Cave. But beware if you want to visit this it will set you back $3’000 and involve a 6 day, 50km trek. This was only discovered a few years ago and fewer people have seen this cave than have climbed Everest (only one company organizes these tours and only have 500-600 spots per year). There is plenty to see and do here that will keep you busy for a few days. We stayed two nights because the weather was so-so, we decided to continue heading south for better weather.
This is another one of those off the beaten places that is very difficult to get to without a bike, so definitely a place to stop off during your motorbike trip.
WHAT TO SEE
One of the most popular things to do here is rent a motorbike and drive the loop through the national park and explore. Having a bike already meant that we could visit the sights ourselves on our own schedule. We took off to explore the epic roads and views this park has to offer.
Paradise Cave – there are a couple of main caves that are on the must-see list and we were told if you only have time to visit one then make it the Paradise Cave. It certainly is worth the trip and definitely the largest and most incredible cave either of us had ever seen. There’s a boardwalk for the first km into the cave for you to walk (don’t worry about being claustrophobic, it’s very open and lit up). Once you park your bike in the parking lot it’s about a 20-minute walk to the entrance (or you can take a golf cart to the bottom of the climb for a small fee).
Phong Nha Cave is also popular, as you get to float on a little wooden boat through an underground river.
Dark Cave as it suggests is for the more adventurous as it involves heading into an unlit cave and taking a giant mud bath. You can also zip line/kayak into this one! Probably one for the summer months.
Hang En Cave is the third largest cave in the world and involves a two day, one night trek.
Hue was our next destination. Unfortunately, due to torrential rain, we had to skip the Ho Chi Minh trail to get here. From Phong Nha National Park to Hue is an epic two-day mountain ride. Day one involves an 8-hour drive through the mountain pass, an overnight stop to recharge, then continuing to Hue the next day. We were really gutted we had to skip this and this would be top of our list if we come back. We spent two nights in Hue, however, despite the rain we didn’t get to explore much so instead turned to rainy day activities (i.e. eating).
WHAT TO SEE
Hue Royal Palace – a walled palace within the citadel and now a UNESCO site. Cost: 150’000 Dong. We didn’t actually make it inside the walls. Hue had torrential rain for the entire three days we were there and as soon as we got out of the taxi we were drenched and very cold (as it is not a covered palace we decided to get back in the taxi and skip it).
Abandoned Water Park – a half finished park which was abandoned in 2004 due to insufficient investor funds and now sits as an overgrown park, very popular with tourists. Again this was one we had to skip but it’s on the list for when we return!
Gym – did we mention we stuck to rainy day activities during our time in Hue? For us, that usually involves a workout. We hit up “Fitness Club” near the Big C. An older, boxing gym but it did the trick.
BIg C – if you saw our stories on Instagram you’ll know that we usually hit up a supermarket as soon as we get to a bigger town to browse for snacks and anything else that we may need. If you’re in Vietnam then this is one of the largest supermarkets and you’ll find everything you need here.
There are many tombs and pagodas around Hue if you have the time to visit. Make sure you check out Travel Fish if you want to know more!
Hoi An: a charming, lantern-filled town known for its food and tailor-made clothing stores. This is one of those towns where you can easily take a whole day just to stroll the streets, admiring the cute yellow buildings while visiting the shops and cafes. We spent three nights here which was the perfect amount of time to explore all the good food spots while our tailor-made clothing was getting made. Oh and don’t forget this is the destination of the epic Hai Van pass drive. While we fell in love with this city’s charm, you should know that it’s a tourist hotspot. There are many hawkers here and you can’t walk down the main street without getting hassled.
WHAT TO SEE
Once you drop your bags head straight to the tailor to get your orders in and fitted. That gives you maximum time for fittings and adjustments while you’re there. Make sure you have an idea of what you want before you go (it can be very overwhelming). We were recommended Canali Clothshop by our Hue homestay host and we HIGHLY RECOMMEND their service. Hayley literally just showed them a photo of a dress she liked and they perfected it, not to mention Brendon’s suits. Tips we were told, don’t go for a dirt cheap tailor, that usually means only 1-2 fittings and less time goes into the finished product. Brendon paid USD200 for a suit, Hayley paid USD50 for a dress and we had 3-4 fittings where everything was perfected. Secondly, (actually, this was something we figured out ourselves). If you try to cut corners on price, they will find a way to cut corners on your clothes. Given what we had made we ended up getting a discount. That goes for food too…don’t haggle for anything that requires a service, they can cut corners too easily (we saw a couple trying to haggle a banana crepe that cost $1).
As mentioned Hoi An is a charming town where you can just stroll the streets and take it all in. You are technically supposed to buy a ticket to visit the old town but tickets are only checked when you enter one of the points of interest. You can buy a ticket for 120’000 dong for 24 hours allowing five places of entrance, including the Tan Ky Museum, the Japanese bridge, museums and handicraft shops. We loved visiting all the little shops with beautiful artwork and handicrafts. In the evenings you can take a boat down the river and float candles.
Gym – if you’re feeling like a workout like we did, then head to Superfit Hoi An Fitness and get a three-day pass (this one is a lot nicer than the one in Hue). Lockers and towels provided.
Barber – Brendon was in need of a haircut and we found Shop Barber Shave Huy Bui for a full service: cut, beard trim, wash, massage. The service is amazing, there is a reason it’s rated 4.9 on Google.
Head to the Beach! Hue is a great beach destination, particularly for the summer months or even on a warm, sunny day. There are plenty of beach resorts to stay here too (just think of that Top Gear episode where they relax waiting for their tailor-made clothes). An Bang and Cua Dai are popular beaches.
Tip: if you are flexible with your visit then try and get to Hoi An during a Lantern Festival, they occur every full moon (google to get the exact dates).
Remember: as a tourist town, there is an annoyingly large amount of hawkers. You can’t walk down the main restaurant boardwalk without sellers yelling at you from inside their shops, or worse, walking with you to try to guide you into their stores. This was the first time we were overwhelmed with it all, and it was here where we realised we wanted to get off the beaten track and avoid the tourist areas.
The next stop on our road trip was the Central Highlands. We initially chose to skip the coast and head inland due to weather, but this was the first time we really felt we were off the beaten track and we are so glad we went. There are great mountain passes, waterfalls, coffee farms galore, not to mention we went days without seeing tourists. Kon Tum was our first stop and the drive there from Hoi An was one of our favourites of the entire trip.
WHAT TO SEE
Kon Tum is a great base to visit some of the Bahnar minority villages. Unlike Buon Ma Thot which require government officials to guide you around, here you are free to visit the villages yourselves, although without someone showing you around you may get a bit lost. Our homestay host was kind enough to take us on a half day trip around some of the villages where we got to visit a Rong (a longhouse at the centre of each village) and stroll through the villages with all the local families. It was here we learnt the local villages don’t speak Vietnamese (they have their own dialect!). This was one of the most special moments of our trip.
Another recommendation is to drive the Kontum Loop. A 110km loop that will take you on some country roads close to Cambodia and Laos, as well as past some of the Vietnam War memorials. Since a large portion of this drive is on unpaved roads, expect a half day trip for this loop. Take the road DT765 until it loops up to QL14E (main road). We only saw a couple of other motorbikes on the country roads, and it’s these types of roads where you have children running up to you yelling hello and admiring our bike as we drove past…
From Kon Tum continue exploring the Central Highlands by heading south to Dalat, via a night stay in Buon Ma Thot. Coffee and Strawberry farms galore! There is plenty to see around this area so plan for a couple of days (plus there is only so much coffee you can drink in a day so you will need some time to try it all!) As we had extended our stay in Kon Tum and we visited the minority villages there we only stayed a night in Buon Ma Thot before carrying onto Dalat. As we had seen the sights around Dalat on our bike on the way in and out then two nights there was plenty.
Trung Nguyen Coffee Village – this is the coffee museum next door to the hotel in Buon Ma Thot. Head here for a great coffee (Hayley had the affogato) and a slice of passionfruit cake.
Lak Lake – you will pass this lake on your drive from Buon Ma Thot to Dalat. We passed a floating fishing village and it’s a lovely lake to stop by and take in the view.
Coffee Weasel Farm – this area is famous for trying Kopi Luwat (the most expensive coffee in the world). We visited an organic farm where we learnt about the process and Hayley tried a cup. It was super smooth tasting, we understand why it’s so expensive. Tip: make sure you eat first, it won’t agree with a weak stomach!
Maze Bar – one of the most interesting bars we’ve visited, an old house which has been made into a dark maze with several floors. You buy a drink as your entrance fee, and your aim is to make it to the top bar for more drinks. A lot of fun!
Night Market – a lot of street food to try as well as fresh fruit (Dalat is strawberry farm central so you will see these everywhere!)
Elephant Waterfall – we visited this on our way into Dalat. There were a lot of bikes here and worth the visit if you have time, however, we enjoyed the Pongour Waterfall a lot more (after spending a week in Iceland earlier this year we now have high waterfall expectations…)
The next stop is truly off the beaten path and the only reason we visited was because of the high ratings the guesthouse had. It really is in the middle of nowhere and the perfect place to relax and switch off for a couple of days. We packed a picnic from Dalat, headed to Pongour Waterfall for lunch then carried onto Di Linh in the afternoon where we were welcomed by three adorable puppies and a waterfall bungalow!
WHAT TO SEE
Pongour Falls – head here on your way to Juliet’s for lunch. There is a parking spot for a small fee where you can safely leave your gear and walk down to the falls. It’s amazing how different these look during the dry season; you can walk out onto rocks at the base. No chance of that for us!
Ho Kala – during our two days at Juliet’s we mostly relaxed in the sun at our bungalow with the puppies, however, we did go for a small outing to the lake Ho Kala. It was a great drive passing through some local villages and we sat lakeside and admired the view.
From Juliet’s Villa, we made our way to Cat Tien National Park. This national park is a lowland tropical forest and home to botanical gardens and a diverse wildlife. We spent the afternoon exploring the park which was enough time to walk the smaller loop. If you wish to explore more of the park then you would need 2-3 days. Similar to Phong Nha this park is often skipped by tourists so it’s a great place to explore without crowds!
WHAT TO SEE
The homestay has free bicycles for you to use to explore the town and park (the park entrance is a 5-minute drive away). We ended up taking the motorbike to the entrance (once you park you take a short ferry across the river) then you have 720km2 of the park to explore!
We ended up walking the small loop as we only had an afternoon, but there is a lot to see. The host will give you a map with some options based on how long you have. During our walk, we saw monkeys swinging from the trees!
Tip: you have to wear covered pants and leech socks as the park is full of (small) leeches. The host has leech socks for you to borrow. To be honest the leeches did put us off a bit, especially as we saw some other visitors with their shoes off trying to get dozens of leeches out of their shoes at the park entrance (they are so small they are hard to see). Brendon ended up getting a couple in his shoes, we had to walk through a small river but the socks did their job!
As we headed south towards Saigon, we knew we wanted to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. These are both places that are usually day trips from Saigon, but since we had the bike we built them into our trip which meant we could visit them on our own time. From Cat Tien we visited the Cu Chi tunnels for the afternoon before an overnight stopover in HCM region. The next day we carried onto Ben Tre which we used as a base to explore the Mekong Delta. Beware that the roads over these two days were the worst we experienced, there were road works everywhere!
When visiting the Mekong Delta there are so many places to stay, but our host in Cat Tien actually advised us against staying in My Tho and Can Tho (both are now just busy, touristy towns) and instead he recommended Ben Tre. The town itself doesn’t really have much going for it, but further out in the Ben Tre province is where we found our homestay. It’s literally located on a river and the host takes you on his own private Mekong Delta boat tour himself. This included visiting many of the local trades and we even got to hold a python! But the most incredible experience was him stopping by a local fishing village where we got to step on foot a family’s floating home. They offered us snacks while they were untangling fish from nets for their dinner. Such simple but happy lives. After first hand visiting a floating home, we had no desire to visit a packed, touristy floating village like the one in Can Tho.
WHAT TO SEE
Cu Chi Tunnels – make sure you go to the Ben Duoc tunnels (not the Ben Dinh). The Ben Dinh tunnels are where the tour buses go and many of the tunnels are fake or have been widened. At Ben Duoc they are all the original tunnels, the first couple you will climb through have been widened so everyone can fit through but at the end some of you will have the choice to crawl through 30m of original 250km tunnels (you need to listen to the instructions because if you make a wrong turn you will end up lost). Brendon was too tall for these, even Hayley was completely bent over and had to bum shuffle her way down parts of it.
Mekong Delta – take the full day tour with the host (we asked for a private tour for just us two, there are only three rooms at the guesthouse so chances are he will have the time). We paid 25USD each (50USD for the boat) and it was probably the best tour we’ve been on. We visited the local sights and trades, as mentioned the most memorable being able to visit a family’s home on a floating fishing village. They had one small bedroom (no bed just blankets on the wooden floor), a bathroom and a kitchen area. They even have power to most villages and some of them have a TV and washing machine (we learnt that the fishing villages are quite successful for families and they enjoy a simple, happy life).
Our motorbike trip came to an end when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City and this is where we dropped off our bike. We picked up our checked in bag from Tigit (we had them send it down from Hanoi so we only travelled with a carry on bag) then checked into our hotel. Since we had already visited the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta we only stayed here two nights. Honestly, we enjoyed the vibe of Hanoi a lot more than HCMC. For us, HCMC was just another big city with shopping malls, fancy cars, and high rise buildings. Also, the traffic getting into the city here was surprisingly calm and quick which we weren’t expecting. The roads here seemed to be built for the high amount of traffic and they even have scooter lanes (unlike the complete and utter chaos of Hanoi).
WHAT TO SEE
Backpacker Street – a great place for some food and drinks and to take in the atmosphere of the streets.
Saigon Skydeck – we didn’t make it here but it’s close to the hotel with a great lookout point.
Rooftop Bars – drinks with a view have become very popular in Ho Chi Minh with many bars popping up including Chill Sky Bar, Air 360 Sky Lounge, and The View Rooftop Bar.
Fame Nails – just the place to get those toes in top shape before hitting up the islands for a week.
What’s the best way to unwind after three weeks on a motorbike? Head to an island and stay at a beachside resort. We booked three nights at Ancarine Beach Resort in Phu Quoc Island. This is situated on the sunset side of the island near Ong Lang Beach and offered the most stunning sunset views, an amazing pool, and resort loungers right on the beach. We loved it so much here that we didn’t leave the resort! When driving to the resort the island looked exactly like the mainland of Vietnam, and it wasn’t until we got to the beach that we found ourselves in paradise, so we decided then and there we weren’t going to do anything but swim, eat and switch off. We ate at our resort and Mango Bay Resort the whole time and it was the perfect few days to unwind. Note that the beach resorts can get quite pricey, but waking up to the sound of the ocean and walking down to the pristine beach was well worth it. For those of you who have been to the Cook Islands, this beach reminded Hayley very much of Rarotonga. The only downside here was the lukewarm shower but given it was 30 degrees every day it didn’t make a difference.
Getting there: we took a flight from HCMC and returned to Ha Tien by ferry. The resort offers free transfers to and from the airport/ferry terminal.
Name: Ancarine Beach Resort
Price per night: USD100 (deluxe double room with garden view)
And that’s a wrap! From here we took a bus across the border to Cambodia where we continued island week at Koh Rong Samloen! Stay tuned for our Cambodia travel guide!
Brendon & Hayley @true_routes
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Amandine & Adrian @whynotabroad