Snake bile in Hanoi

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam deserves its title as capital, due to the sheer size of the place. Spend a day walking around the city, meandering through the tiny streets and dodging human rickshaws, whilst dining on pho (this gorgeous warm broth like mixture with noodles, meat and vegetables floating within and giving off a delicious aroma) all the while whilst dining on this delicious concoction and sitting on small plastic chairs made for kindergarten children on street corners, or enjoying an ice cream around the large lake that centers the bustling city of Hanoi.

Check out the Water Puppet Show, a show that links puppet style dancing, traditional music and special effects with water puppets. The artists who deliver this daily show, have magnificent skills in creating a mirage of puppets and no masters. As an audience member, one only sees the jerky movements of the puppet in unison with the Vietnamese music that floats past the speakers, making this performance like no other. Another popular sight to see is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, as many flock to this sight, out of love, duty, respect or curiosity, to see their old leader. Arriving at 9am is a bad idea as many locals come from all over the country to pay their respects, so I recommend visiting earlier.

Hanoi

I also went to a Snake Farm tour organized by ‘Hanoi Backpackers’. On this tour, you dine on seven courses of snake; snake spring rolls snake bones, snake meat and even snake tail- I am sure a meal you would not expect to eat whilst away. Not forgetting shots of snake blood and bile which was… disgusting, although an experience in itself. Some people chose to do shots of the snake heart (they thought if Gordon Ramsay could, they could) but I couldn’t stand the thought of killing an animal to have the opportunity to swallow its heart for three seconds. Each course is washed down with a shot of burning locally made rice wine, both before and after. At the time, I was told that is was a tradition that was kept up in the countryside of Vietnam. However, because this tourist entertainment has increased over the years, the influx of tourists demanding this has meant instead of farmed snakes being used, they are now turning to protective species. When visiting Hanoi, decide for yourself if that story or photo opp, really is worth affecting the local wildlife.

Drinking in Hanoi when I was there, most of the time ended badly. As Hanoi is still a communist capital, some nights the police would unexpectedly turn up around midnight making sure bars were shut. A popular haunt is Bucket Bar, which knocks up powerfully strong buckets to wipe out all who fare to try it. I found Hanoi one of the most unsafe cities I have been to in Asia, with many people I know getting severely injured for their pin code number or robbed whilst walking alone at night. So my tip for you is to always stay in a group, stay away from gangs of motorcyclists, and just gangs in general and never take out valuables or large amounts of money out with you.

The best hostel I have ever stayed in Asia has to be the new “Hanoi Backpackers” in Hanoi. Its modern, it has numerous floors with many toilets and showers, and also you can get air conditioning at a reasonable price! As well as having two floors of free internet, a terrace, a TV room with numerous DVDs and pool tables- not forgetting the restaurant that serves all types of food for a reasonable price. Although honestly, this hostel is a party hostel as it has competitions and events such as live bands and beer pong tournaments on every night of the week, so I would recommend it to party people.Halong Bay

Also when you are in Hanoi, organise a trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is one of the Natural Wonders of the World and a World Heritage Sight, and seeing such a tremendous sight, you can see why. Floating along on a wooden ship, you gaze out to the vast horizon, where large majestic limestone islands are planted in a large ocean, with its beautiful boulder tips filled with rainforest and gaping holes in the stone which houses thousands of swooping birds and bats. The landscape looks as if an almighty force sprinkled a fine set of gems all over the bay, creating glimmering mirages of nature. There are a number of competitors fighting to take you on various trips here. However, I booked with my hostel a two night trip. This meant we spent one night floating on a large wooden boat dancing in thunderstorms (by chance) and watching the stars twinkle at us at night. The second night we spent alone on our own private island, allowing us complete and utter privacy to swim, sunbathe and share stories over a camp fire. It was an incredible experience and I urge you all to follow suit.

Halong Bay

The Mountains of Dalat

Dalat is different to the rest of Vietnam. Tucked away in the rolling hills, it is filled with tea plantations and French style architecture which creates a European hideaway in Vietnam. Travelling there by local bus took me on some very windy corners and dangerous cliff edges, leaving me to hold my breath for most of the journey. It took me further and further away from bustling cities, and closer and closer to lush green mountains filled with a different climate, culture, and even people. Probably because of all the fresh air they get.

The town is small, all merging together in a central clump where the local market is held, where “outside cafes” shout food orders to one another to satisfy their impatient customers and piles of various types of clothes lie in organized heaps on the floor being bargained and bartered over. A walk along the lake is beautiful at night, as groups of local’s gossip and watch the street lights dance on the lake’s reflection.

There is little to do in the town itself, except sip coffee in French style cafes, read a book and watch the world wander past. The town is more about distracting oneself by its nature, beauty and calm atmosphere, then significant tourist attractions. Head out to the surrounding landscape either by renting a motorbike or taking the fusion of a motorcyclist cum tour guide, whom call themselves ‘Easy Riders’. They are known and recommended by the Lonely Planet for their expertise and knowledge of the local area, so if in doubt biking yourself, jump onto the back of one of these friendly and informative tours.

They take you to the beautiful hills of Dalat, which is filled with rows and rows of tea plantations all rubbing shoulders with one another and laid out in front of you as if a magic carpet of Tetley. Other stops include the Elephant Waterfall, a large waterfall which spurts out water with such force and strength, even when you stand at a faraway distance, you still manage to get wet. Afterwards, you are shown coffee plants, the very start of the crop cycle that gives energy and buzz to so many eager addicts, a beautiful flower garden, a silk worm factory where you learn about the enormous industry of silk and the tiny creature it stems from and a rice wine garden– where you are pushed to taste it. Not only this, you are taken to an incredibly popular sight within the town of Dalat, (and one that has since put Dalat on the tourist map), the ‘Crazy House’, otherwise known as Hang Nga Guesthouse. The ‘Crazy House’ was originally built for the purpose of a guest house, but found little interest in customers who actually wanted to stay there, due to its bizarre and garish nature. The style of the house is reminiscent of the works of Gaudi and Dali, swirls and surrealist passageways that lead to incredibly unique- and odd might I add, animal themed private rooms. The house is a marvel to find in such a quiet mountain town of Dalat, it is definitely an interesting visit.

Although, I sped through the surrounding areas of Dalat in one day, travelling by motorbike does make the journey much easier and quicker. It also allows you to fully appreciate the spectacular scenery around you, passing through hill tribes, stopping regularly at random locations and experiencing real Vietnamese culture. Many tourists do buy or hire a bike for their journey in Vietnam, riding from end of the country to another, and with landscapes like those in Dalat, you can see why it is a popular choice. I really enjoyed riding with an “Easy Rider”, not only because I was able to sit back and enjoy the scenery without focusing on the road, but I got to know my Vietnamese rider, Binh. He told me stories at lunch of his old job, working in factories where he lost his thumb and how his heart was never in to his work. Now with “Easy Riders”, he could improve his English and learn from visitors from all over the world, as well as see his beautiful country of Vietnam through new eyes everyday. Choosing this option to see Dalat, made me feel not only was I educating myself, but supporting someone who needed it.

A Weekend in Mui Ne

Mui Ne beach is a luxurious place, a place for holiday makers to come and stretch out into the sun and soak up the warm rays, a place to get soothing massages and dine on deliciously tasting food. I’d call it the Koh Samui of Vietnam. The beach is lined with expensive hotel, after expensive hotel, with nice restaurants in between.

Mui Ne is a hotspot for windsurfers because of the large amount of… well wind, that crashes amongst this coast line. With clouds constantly blocking our hope of getting a tan and none of us being particularly good windsurfers, we had to look afield. We rented a jeep to some local sand dunes where we hired quad bikes and drove around these towering sand dunes, massive beasts of nature. Acting out scenes from Thelma and Louise, we sped through the soft grains of sand, tumbling over smooth bumps, and speeding around tight corners. I would recommend hiring quad bikes as it is wonderful to feel the wind in your face and the sand flinging behind you, whilst avoiding hiking up very steep sand dunes to race down it, whilst getting a mouthful of sand. I also recommend visiting the fairy stream, not the most breath taking sight, but still an interesting sight to see. Take your shoes off and wander barefoot down the bubbling stream that floats past smiling locals, large ever green fields, and beautiful formations in the sand made by cutting edges of the stream.

I went with a group of girls I volunteered with and we stayed at ‘The Backpacker Hostel’ the only hostel around that provided clean accommodation, in a home stay setting but with the same friendly and social vibes you would find at a hostel. We found ourselves drinking cocktails at a bar overlooking the beach and wondered straight (as that’s the only way you can go- straight and straight some more) leading us into a secluded club on the beach, where we ended up dancing with a very friendly prostitute, til the sun began to rise and dogs began to bark at us.

The next day we crawled out of bed to an upmarket hotel with a spa nearby and got massages, a popular activity to do because of the large choice of spa’s that are available. Now this massage place was one that people dream of. Sculptures in every corner, lilies on the perfect white sheets, and a view that overlooks the sea, the hour went by in a flash. Turning round to thank my masseuse, who did an amazing job (definitely the second best massage I have ever had), I found to my shock and surprise- it was a familiar face, the prostitute I’d made friends with on the dancefloor from the night before. Interesting.

Id recommend Mui Ne if you want a more upmarket version of Nha Trang with more a sophisticated clientèle and choice of restaurants, as well as a much quieter ambience, rather than loud and boisterous Nha Trang.

Naughty Nha Trang

Nha Trang is a strange place. A collision of east meets west, of routine and wild nights, of locals and backpackers. The town away from the beach is ridden with mechanical shops and stores that sell basic needs and are filled with numerous businesses, but the area that surrounds the beach is filled with beautiful sand and swaying palm trees, as well as swimming pools, resorts and beach bars. Drink fancy cocktails at Sailors Day Club whilst dipping your toes in their swimming pool, or head to a quiet section of the beach where you can close your eyes and doze. But there is no chilled atmosphere in Nha Trang. This is the St.Tropez of Vietnam. It seems there is little to do in Nha Trang apart from drink, sleep and sunbathe, and then repeat.

Nha Trang

Although spending a few days here, I did manage to do some activities that led me away from lazing on a sun bed. We went on a boat trip organized by our hostel which involved island hopping, cruising along high speed along the crystal waters, the sun glinting on the seas surface as we listened to a live metal instrument band, and a floating bar (which actually means a guy in a rubber ring with a plastic bottle of alcohol). It was a good excuse to get away from Nha Trang and see the beautiful scenery around it. We also went to Vin Pearl– an amusement park to rid ourselves of pounding hangovers. It begins with a cable car to the island where the park is situated on, which is a beautiful journey in itself and an excellent excuse to whack out the camera. The water park had exhilarating rides because of the angles of the slides, but also the rickety and misplaced parts of plastic brought a new element of fear to the ride as well.

Nha Trang

Fellow backpackers and tourists be warned: at night, many locals form gangs and prey on drunk backpackers. Whether they are prostitutes or men with weapons on bikes, they each have a plan of action to take advantage of tourists. The prostitutes go to punch a guys beloved bits, so as the guy protects himself, another steals his wallet from his back pocket, which had happened to my friend- so all I can say to that is, travel in groups. Also, a popular activity with backpackers is a spot of late night swimming. However, there are many predators who stand in the dark shadows the night, waiting for tourists to leave their clothes and valuables to go swimming, where they then grab your belongings and run. Be careful at night, to avoid losing valuables and to avoid humiliation of walking back naked to your hostel.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is not a place for culture lovers, it is a place of relaxation, topping up your tan and partying. And for some, a place to get robbed.