The best travel advice often times come from words of mouth from other travellers rather than from a guidebook. Hence, when a friend said to me that I HAD TO go to Phong Nha Cave, I trusted that I did indeed have to go to Phong Nha Cave, and the seemingly extravagant expenses (that is, in comparison to my $45 USD a day budget) attached to the trip were overweighted by the appeal of walking through some of the biggest and most recently discovered caves in the world. And so I hopped on the train from Danang heading to động Phong Nha, and I’d say that the train ride alone made the journey worthwhile. The scenery between Danang and Huế is straight out of a game is Myst and I was a little sad that I was not able to stop and explore all these beautiful rural coastal areas along the Hải Vân Pass.
Travelling to South East Asia doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with following a vegan diet in many people’s eyes. And with good reason : walk around Bangkok or Hanoi and you are likely going to see big cauldrons of pig’s rectum soup and duck beak stew simmering on the road side with sides of congealed blood and fried goat stomach. And unfortunately I am not actually joking. But take a bit of a better look past the grotty and grim, and you’ll soon find that there is a wide selection of food for the vegan and health conscious all around. Happy Cow is a great place to start your hunt for healthy grub, but just a poke around the market will reveal delicious and unexpected surprises.
Our first contact of the day hopping off the night train at Lao Cai station is with a herd of aggressive minibus drivers wanting to charge four times the going rate to take us to Sapa. We negotiate our fare like champs and quickly get herded to a minivan where we have to wait for every last nook and cranny to be filled with more passengers, luggage, babies, garlic, and the like. When we finally reach full capacity and proceed to drive up the winding road, it’s through an opaque blanket of fog that leaves us guessing what’s hiding in the distance. But all of a sudden, as if a breathing, living creature, the fog rolls behind the mountains in a matter of minutes, taking us aback with the beauty of the scenery.
The Ha Long Bay circus starts long before boarding the boat, or even setting off for Ha Long city itself. Our plans to travel independently to Cat Ba island and visit the bay from there were scuppered by the week-long reunification day holiday and thousands of vacationing Vietnamese. In the words of one emailed guesthouse proprietor: “Don’t come this week, the room too expensive!”. So after a quick change of plans, we pressed on to Hanoi and started scouring travel agents.
As the Futa overnight bus rolled into Danang at 6am, it’s safe to say we were a little the worse for wear. Locating the local bus to Hoi An was straightforward, but the blaring horn, aggressive conductor and sloth-like pace were not exactly soothing. A short walk into the old city and we were too early to check into our guesthouse. Breakfast was called for, and with a life-changing bowl of mushroom rice porridge at a vegetarian joint called “Mild” and this naughty face, things were already looking better.
Dalat. What to say. I am unsure as to why we added Dalat to our itinerary in the first place and I can’t quite decide in retrospect if I’m glad we did or not. People we meet seemed to have either adored Dalat or to have been left completely indifferent. I leave you to guess at which end of the spectrum we stand.
Mui Ne was something of an enigma on our arrival – we rolled into town after dark, having taken the afternoon bus from Saigon. The ever-excellent Futa bus staff dropped us right at the Duc Thao Guest House – the good reviews on TripAdvisor were promising, and when Duc himself had swiftly answered our emails the previous day, we knew it would be a good bet. The family welcomed us into a spacious, clean double room and Mui Ne would have to wait until morning.
We left Phnom Penh by boat, at once heartbroken to say goodbye to such an amazing country and relieved not to have to sit through another karaoke infused Cambodian bus ride. A few hours into our journey along the Mekong, everything became suddenly vividly green and people in pointy hats started popping up amidst the lush background. We had arrived in Vietnam.
Four hours east of Kampong Cham was the lovely town of Kratie, so lovely that it left me wondering if perhaps we should have broken down our time in Cambodia differently? Had we spent too much time in Otres Beach? I tentatively suggested that perhaps we should come back to explore more of the Cambodian countryside at a later time of our trip? Oh, the meagerness of the one-month tourist visa.