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Vietnam on a Shoestring (Iona Bepey)

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…and then Iona went to Vietnam – another fantastic experience she has shared with us…

There are few places in the world you can look forward to visiting, fall in love while you’re there, be sorry to leave and plan immediately to come back. There may be many, depending on your interests, budget, and how ‘dubious’ you like your street food; the one thing I can say with total certainty is that Vietnam is most definitely one.

image_4Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City to be precise – greeted us late at night with torrential rain and crashing thunderclouds. After arriving at the hotel, it took all of ten minutes for our thoughts to turn to food, and after a mad dash across the traffic (an experience in itself), we found it: a street vendor hidden under tarpaulins, and full to the brim with locals. Dubious but delicious – not even the rain could dampen our first night in Vietnam!

Next stop, after meeting and greeting the rest of our travel group over a meal, was the Cu Chi Tunnels. The history geek in me is easily excited, and this was no different: dense jungle and denser history, with the opportunity to crawl through the enlarged tunnels of the Vietnam War – not one for the claustrophobic! The War Remnants Museum followed – harrowing but thought-provoking; emotions were running high by the time we left Saigon.

The first of three overnight trains brought us to Nha Trang, and a beach BBQ to end them all: white sand and turquoise water, unlimited food and drink and excellent company under the sub. As it turned out, a trip to a waterfall and mud-baths the following day was the perfect cure for sunburn, though serious hits were taken for ‘maturity’ when the temptation for a mud fight became too much to ignore…!

image_3Train number two landed us in the beautiful streets of Hoi An for a relax by the pool and a roam about the old town. Hoi An is famous for its tailors – dresses and suits, handmade overnight to any and all specifications. Next up was a bike tour, leading us through rice paddles and up the river. Topping the list of Weird Experiences was getting to ride a water buffalo around a pond enclosure; less fun was getting soaked in stagnant pond water when our ride wandered into the deep end!

Leaving Hoi An led us to Hue, and a motorbike tour of the old town, citadel and temples. The final stop on our journey was an old American bunker overlooking the Perfume River to watch the sunset – easily the most beautiful and memorable sight of the trip, and well worth the rocky ride up the hillside.

image_2We were sorry to leave Hue, but did so with bags full of fruit from the market for the fourteen hour train journey to Hanoi, followed by a further four hours in a minibus to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long is heralded as one of the Wonders of the Natural World, and upon arrival, it’s really not hard to see why: the bay stretches for miles in all directions, with rocks springing up from the water on all sides. Kayaking, swimming and a delicious seafood lunch made it a day to remember!

Leaving Ha Long the next day brought us back to Hanoi – the final stop – for one of the most delicious (yet, again, dubious) meals of the trip. Plate after plate of street noodles, crab spring rolls (my new obsession) and BBQ pork, followed by a tour of the Old Town and a trip to a traditional water puppet show at a downtown theatre.

As it turned out, Hanoi was the perfect place to end a perfect trip: the busy, vibrant heart of Northern Vietnam, having come full-circle from the South. One hell of a trip, thanks to Gap 360 – couldn’t recommend more highly, and can’t wait to go back!

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