Tag Archives: vietnam

Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

After our nightmare transit to get to Cat Ba Island we wandered the streets in search of food and drink…we found a western joint that did the most credible attempt at a burger and chips that we have had since leaving home (with a couple of beers) and then found a little street stall selling 2 litre kegs of local beer for 70,000 duong ($3.50)…and it was a hot day…so we had that..closely followed by an afternoon nap.

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We organised our Ha Long Bay day trip through the hostel. For the grand price of $24 a head. We hopped the boat at the harbour at 8am where we sailed around Lan Ha Bay, checked out the seriously impressive karst (lumps) landscapes that we had been craving to see the day before. Stopped along the way to hop onto kayaks where we got to paddle through secluded lagoons, under rock arches and through limestone tunnels…basically every perfect scenario for the day.

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Having kayaked we got a seafood lunch on the boat as we travelled to the Me Cung cave (inside one of the lumps) where we spelunked. From here we sailed to a private beach where we swam and some snorkelled (supposedly looking at coral reefs). Continued cruising through Halong bay during the afternoon past the floating fishing villages and on to Monkey Island for another swim while the others took photos of the tree rats (monkeys). After this we sailed back to Cat Ba arriving at sunset…not a bad day…

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Possibly the best day we have had since leaving Australia…definitely in the top 5.

A group of us from the boat all joined up and headed out that evening to sample the local street food on offer and to tap into those baby beer kegs. Some awesome pancake, rice paper wrap things were found and life was good. The next day we were up and out, hiring motorbikes, for $5 this time, and off exploring we went. This time I went the whole day without crashing the motorbike…but then again…this time I did not try doing donuts in the mud. A little bit of skin lost, some bruises to the ego and a gob full from the wife…no real damage done. This time we just zipped around the island checking out the cool stuff on offer.

We stopped at the hospital cave…a little cave half way up one of the lumps. The 75 cent entrance fee suggested it would be a fizzer but boy were we wrong. This place was huge, three storeys high and built inside the mountain, stairs, rooms, operating theatres, even a cinema. It was used for many years as a bombproof hideaway hospital and as a safe house for VC leaders.

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When we hit the water on the other side of the island we sat staring at the sea eagles circling, swooping and scooping fish from the water. This is such a simple activity but is fascinating and an easy way to while away time. We rode back to the tourist side, found a beach and set up camp for a couple of hours. Late afternoon arrived and we were besieged by a tour group of Chinese…they had set up activities on the beach for them (similar to children’s games) and had the doof doof music and MC blasting across the beach. Tranquility ruined…we rode away.


Cat Ba island only has a couple of real touristy things to see and do and they are good. It has 3 fairly small resort beaches which are ok without being stunning. The key thing it has is as a launching point to visit and cruise through Halong Bay…and for that it is perfect. I cannot think of any way that our stay on Cat Ba could have been better. Google tells me that there are some major 5 star tourist developments planned with bungalows, casinos and expected capacities of around the 6000 mark. If that is he case…plan your visit soon…as such things will ruin the place.




Having left Phu Quoc we landed in Hanoi and our Vietnam experiences changed almost immediately. Up until now Vietnam has had much going for it….the place is cheap, the people are friendly and a hello will greet you everywhere you go, the architectural mix is fascinating and there is an overwhelming sense that people want to help and serve (in a tourism sense)…but it still wasn’t doing it for us.

Maybe it was the food but Vietnam wasn’t grabbing us. There were some minor sights to see in each place but nothing earth shattering…nice but just there… Then we got to Hanoi. This place also has a few touristy things to see, it is choking in smog, the food is still drowning in coriander and cucumber…but it has a whole different feel to everything that we had experienced in the south. The touts were there…but not pushy, the shops are cheap, the people remain friendly… everything’s the same but somehow it feels different.

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Jill booked us into a hostel ($14 a night…breakfast included) in the middle of town near the Hoan Kiem lake and a short walk from ancient town (the main tourist area). We found a little corner restaurant in ancient town where, believe it or not, the beers were even cheaper. We are now paying 40c for a 500-600 ml beer. We did the tourist schlepp around and the sights were much the same as they were in Saigon…but this intangible feeling was there that made it somehow better. We went to the presidential palace, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, Hoa Lo prison (the Hanoi Hilton) and all the other usual tourist haunts.

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For some reason the majority of modern buildings in Vietnam have a frontage width of 4.5 meters. So you have this steady stream of tall thin buildings…side by side…but in no way connected. It is just the way it happens over here. They are impossibly narrow, long, generally about 4 storeys high and crammed in side by side. This means that each floor has a tiny staircase a corridor and rooms on one side…and that is it. I had an attempt at street side “Manpering” with a haircut and a shave with a cutthroat razor…India still wins.

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After 4 days of generally just soaking up and loving the feel of Hanoi we headed off on a commute to possibly Vietnam’s most famous site…Ha Long Bay. Everyone has surely seen the pictures of this place and we were on our way. The scene of our next adventure would be Cat Ba Island. There is a Halong city but all reports we have had was that it is a tourist hellhole and that Cat Ba was the way to go…you got to see big chunks of the bay rather than the Gilligan’s Island tour that was offered from Halong City.

Alas we had a nightmare transit to get there. It was not far (about 150kms) from Hanoi and it didn’t take too long (about 6 hrs) but every leg of the trip was atrocious. We were in a cab at 6:30am to the bus station, for a 7:15 bus to Hai Phong, another bus to the water ferry, a ferry ride over to Cat Ba island, a bus to the heart of town and an uphill walk to our accommodation. I won’t go into the gory details but suffice to say that every minute of this journey was hellish. And having arrived we had still not seen any of the renowned Ha Long bay as even the boat ride took us through the container shipping channel and delivered us to the anus of the island. The last bus ride gave us a smoggy view of the karsts (lumps) we had come to see but our viewing would wait until another day.

Phu Quoc island

Well we had a really easy commute to Phu Quoc island on a Vietnam airlines turbo prop. It was a wet and rainy day so the landing was a little on the rough side as we hit some serious turbulence on the way in. The female pilot had it all under control…I made the obligatory cockpit/box office joke…Jill was unimpressed…but we did hit a vew potholes on the way in that caused some people to almost soil themselves. It was pretty funny really.

We arrived at Phu Quoc island (which is essentially a series of beach resorts) at the end of rainy season. So of course it rained that evening and was torrential all of the next day…we sat and caught up with our blogging, reviews of various places and had a short walk for a meal when the rain briefly eased. We found a co-op store that sold cheese so bought some Edam and Gouda with some crackers, tomato and a local version of a cabana. A bottle of sav blanc and some beers and the afternoon just flew by.

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Our neighbours in the next bungalow decided to cut short their plans and moved on…big mistake…the next morning (and the next two to follow) we woke to stunning sunshine, calm warm waters and an idyllic island lifestyle. We hired motorbikes for the grand price of $7.50 a day and off we went exploring. Zipping along dirt tracks alongside a beach for hour upon hour is pretty sweet. We climbed up what passes for a mountain (on the bikes) and headed to the southernmost tip of the island to the pier where all the fishing boats come in, dock and sell their wares.

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After a good day we dropped off our bikes after getting more cheese etc for a late afternoon nibble and that night headed up to the closest thing that resembles a decent restaurant. This place is a culinary vacuum…the whole island. There are many restaurants but they all serve some form of fusion food. Given the wide variety of tourists nationalities that come here…this fusion is vast…and wrong. This is a theme that we have discovered throughout our travels…in every country…western food is tailored to suit local tastes and vice versa…and it does not work…ever. We have stopped trying to eat western food as it just gets destroyed. Eat local, it is cheaper, and better.

Phu Quoc island is currently pretty idyllic but the signs are bad…the place as it is, is full of beachside bungalows and little resort style accommodation… but the big hotels are coming. While doing the motorbike ride we passed the building sites of about 10 big 5 star hotels…side by side. This will greatly change the nature of the place so get in quickly before it changes forever.

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We settled in to a few days of lazing by the beach, swimming in the surf, having late afternoon cocktails while watching the sun set and having evening meals at one of the crapy fusion joints. We found a decent coffee place which was about a one kilometre walk up the beach…so we made a daily trek…interspersed with dips in the ocean. We seem to have finished the hard travelling section of our trip and the places we are visiting have comparatively little to see…just things to experience.

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Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Landing in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam the original impression was great…there is a quiet zone inside the airport where you can get money, arrange airport transfers and local phone cards entirely in peace. Once these simple logistics are sorted you then step out into the throng of spruiks, touts and general madness that exists with every Asian commute.

We headed to our hostel to find our room was not ready so we bounced around the streets in a range of local bars killing time and a wide variety of beers waiting for our room. Beer here in Vietnam tends to range in price anywhere from 10,000 dong all the way up to a ridiculous 50,000 dong (50 cents up to $2.50). We had the obligatory wet season afternoon downpours and generally enjoyed the sights and sounds of a new city.

Room ready, we dumped our gear and ventured out for an evening meal. Jill had booked our hostel in the middle of the tourist bar and nightclub district. This brought about a new game for Jill. She would walk about 10 metres behind me and laugh as the local hookers and bar girls would see me and commence their patter and then she would appear and they would all go oh…and stop. She thought that this was a fun game.

On the food front I had been dreading the next couple of legs and the Ho Chi Minh foray saw a lot of my fears come to light…Jill on the other hand was fine. I have a long held dislike for cucumber and I find that coriander overpowers everything in a dish. As such these are my two most disliked items (brussel sprouts are high on any list too) and Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand tend to use them all liberally. Jill loves them so she is having a ball while I am hunting for and eating around some of the staple foods of the land. The fresh spring rolls and bowls of Pho have Jill in bliss and I have had 2 spring rolls each one was laden with one or both of the offending items so I stopped trying them. Thankfully the Pho comes with a plate of fresh herbs and you can add your own…so I have the opportunity to eat this at least.

The next day we headed out on the tourist trail starting with a walk to the Ben Thanh market which is in the heart of town and sells almost everything on the planet…cheap…if you are willing to fight and haggle. From here a walk to the opera house, around to the people’s convention hall, past the revolutionary museum and on to the Notre Dame cathedral.

At this, point we had reached the war remnants museum (which was formerly called the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” and before that the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”). This is possibly the most confronting war museum in the world. There were images and stories so graphic as to turn people’s stomachs and visibly queasy people could be seen. Photos of dismemberments due to shelling and more of the napalm and agent orange victims abound.

Possibly more confronting were the photos of the disfigurement and retardation caused by the Agent Orange bombings, a generation on… No doubt there were elements of propaganda throughout but either way, this was one of the grittiest war museums I have been to…highlighting the bad sides of war rather than the heroism that is normally displayed. As a positive, the ground floor had stories and photos of people overcoming and living with their disabilities and deformities.

The one thing that Vietnam has that is new for us since leaving Australia is a rumble…the sheer volume of motorbikes on the roads means that the entire place rumbles. No one bike is overly noisy but the constant stream of thousands of bikes means that there is a constant vibration. Having left China where all the bikes were electric and silent this was quite the change for us.

Saigon 2023 update

Well, what a difference a few years has made. Vietnam has gone ahead in leaps and bounds since our last visit. So much has changed, and for the most part, they seem to have gone ahead, rather than backwards during the Covid crisis. The introduction was poor, as the immigration process was long, painful and cumbersome. We got off our plane and spent the next 90 minutes inching forward in a seemingly unmoving line.

Eventually we did make it out of the airport and made our way to the accommodation. The first thing that strikes you is how clean it is. Major efforts have been, and continue to be, made in cleaning up the city. Footpaths now exist and are in good order (even if they still have motorbike parking all over them).  The central Bến Thành Market has had an external refresh with a large paved area out the front now, giving easy access. The market itself does however seem to have transformed fully into a tourist market (rather than the 70% that it was before).  

Also, the rumbling of motorcycles has calmed. The introduction of electric bikes has reduced some of the rumble that used to exist from the masses of motorbikes. Don’t get me wrong, the rumble is still there but it is considerably reduced from that which formerly existed. Even some of the honking of horns has reduced.

The traditional dress for women that used to be widely worn, has all but disappeared (in Saigon at least). This has been replaced with the shortest of short pants and skirts that seem to be everywhere. The pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme.

The abundance of ladyboys seems to have gone through the roof. While they were always there, this time around, they seem to be more prevalent. The other thing that has exploded is the use of padded underwear to give a womanly shape. This applies to the ladyboys and the women alike. We sat at a bar and watched the parade as people with very interesting shapes passed us by. I decided that these would forevermore be known as Bumderwear.

The one thing that has not changed is the variety, quality and cheapness of the food. On our last trip we were getting around 20,000 dong per Aussie dollar. Whether our currency has tanked, or the Vietnamese economy has strengthened this is down closer to 15000 today. Even with such a drop off in exchange rates, food and beverage in Vietnam remains very cheap with incredible value to be found for under $5.

Our first lunch was a Banh Mi from a street vendor who was charging a ridiculous 22,000 dong ($1.30) for a pork roll with the lot. So for under $5 Jill and I were fed and got a drink each.