Returning to the backpacker trail in Vietnam after our two weeks of luxury, back to cheap eats, cheap sleeps and dodgy transportation… 273 days in.
Waving goodbye to Mike’s parents at Ho Chi Minh airport, it was time to return to our normal life after our Christmas break, for us this meant navigating the city by bus and finding cheap accommodation in the backpacker district. Like that sluggishness on the first day back to work, our brains obviously weren’t in travel savvy mode and as we lay awake at 3 am with the thumping music from the bar next door shaking the room we regretted our hasty choice in accommodation. Other than that our first day back had been a success, having met the Pintos in Japan back in April, Dave put us in touch with his Vietnamese girlfriend, Mary. We had a fun tour round the city that night with her on scooters, stopping for the best Pho (noodle soup) we’ve had so far and to Mike’s delight proper coffee at a traditional Vietnamese street side stall.
Rising early the next day, we headed off to catch a bus to Cat Tien national park. As our accommodation said there was no space left on the direct bus we decided we could save ourselves a few quid by making our own way to the bus station and buying a ticket there. I’m always a bit apprehensive the first few times we take a long distance bus in a new country, are we being overcharged? Is the bus really going where we hope it is? And the most annoying one, will it stop 5 km outside the town and we’ll have no choice but to pay for an overpriced taxi? Fortuitously none of these worries were realised this time and the bus even dropped us right outside the national park entrance, bonus! However, mini bus journeys are an experience themselves in Vietnam. We’ve got used to everyone driving crazily in Asia, undertaking, overtaking on dangerous bends and using the horn instead of an indicator but Vietnam is another level, here the pavements are fair game as a short cut at peak times and they drive fast, really fast, no wonder 28 000 people die a year on Vietnamese roads.
Cat Tien national park and it’s wildlife is a lesser known stop on the tourist trail and not wanting to miss out on the chance for some wildlife spotting, we splashed out and booked ourselves onto the Wild Gibbon Trek for a chance to see Golden Cheeked Gibbons in the wild. Rising early the next morning, off we went into the forest at 5 am, finding a small clearing, we reclined in hammocks whilst we watched the day break around us and listened out for the Gibbons’ calls, although I of course had a brief snooze! With the forest well and truly awake and the Gibbon calls sounding more like a turbocharger on an alien spaceship than a primate (Mike’s description not mine), Mr Trong, our guide led us off in search of them. Expecting a long walk, we were surprised when within a few minutes, we were craning our necks upwards at the trees and saw a family of three.
We truly appreciated how lucky we were to be able to watch the Gibbons, their arms are unbelievably long and their calls, wow! It was encouraging to see that they weren’t bothered by us watching and that the national park are committed to protecting them and not turning them into too much of a tourist attraction. After the trek we had a tour of Go East’s primate rehabilitation centre, to see the work they’re doing in releasing rescued Gibbons and other primates back into the wild. The national park offers a selection of walking trails and wildlife watching trips although we weren’t able to take advantage of these as Mike had injured his toe during our trip round Phu Quoc and some recuperation was required.
After another minibus journey zooming past the Vietnamese countryside we arrived in Dalat, perched up in the hills with a pretty lake at the centre. Following a day of rest for Mike’s toe and a trip to a local hair saloon for a haircut for me, (a bargain at only $2!) we explored the local area. The cool mountain air was a refreshing change and we had some good meals at local food stalls, a few of which were a fun experience as they didn’t have a menu but eagerly ushered us to a seat and then brought over two plates of their dish, which was always tasty, filling and around £1, who needs a menu when you only serve one dish and it tastes so good? Top sight in Dalat, according to our guide book is Hang Nha Crazy House, “think Gaudí meeting Tolkien and dropping acid together”. It’s a hotch-potch of architectural expression and was fun to explore and climb over.
As per usual, our favourite activity from our time in Dalat was when we hired a scooter and got out of the city. We headed into the hills at Lang Biang, spotting on the map what we thought was a great view point we could drive straight up to. Winding up the country roads, we passed fields covered in polytunnels and signs of agriculture beyond the usual rice fields. Reaching Lang Biang we discovered that although there was a road leading to the top, we had to leave the bike 5 km down the road and walk, only locals are allowed up on scooters obviously.
With the midday sun beating down on us and not being prepared for a 10 km round trip we had a pleasant walk in the woods but didn’t make it to the top of the mountain. Highlight of the day was the food; on our way back to Dalat we stopped off for lunch at a food stall in the front of a house and in terms of the taste versus price ratio, the food is unbeaten in Vietnam so far!
It was soon time to hit the road again and clock up some miles as we headed 14 hours further north to Hoi An on our first overnight bus in Vietnam. It felt as if we were travelling business class with a nearly fully reclining seats, although they are Vietnamese sized so a little bit too small for gangly legged westerners! The twisty turny bumpy roads as we left Dalat meant that once again we were more shaken to sleep rather than gently rocked but it wasn’t too bad, I’ve yet to find a bus journey that I haven’t fallen asleep on! After a nap and a shower the birthday boy and I were ready to explore the historic city of Hoi An.