Strictly: Stray – Part #2

I was really sad to leave Hoi An, especially after all we’d managed to pack into our few days there, but hopping back on the bus meant exploring new towns and seeing the North of Vietnam which was exciting enough to drag me away from my new favourite city. The first stop after Hoi An was the ancient city of Hue, the ancient seat of the Nguyen dynasty and the capital before 1945. Like everywhere else in Vietnam the streets are choked with bikes and cars driving whichever way they choose, so it was lovely to escape into the ancient imperial city, inside the citadel, where there were no cars. With the exception of Hoi An, all the history I’d encountered in Vietnam up until this point was related to the war, so it was nice to spend a few days exploring the history of the country before the Americans, and the restoration works taking place in the imperial city are really unbelievable. Unfortunately, a lot of it was bombed by the French and the Americans so many parts of the compound are in ruins, but the buildings which are salvageable are being painstakingly restored and it would be amazing to visit again in a few years to see what’s left transformed. Already the Emperor’s Reading Room has been returned to its former glory and it’s quite an amazing, and beautiful building. We only had an afternoon in Hue so didn’t get a chance to cruise in a dragon boat down the Perfume River, or visit the numerous tombs of the emperors scattered outside the city, but that’s just another thing to add to my list of things to do when I return to Vietnam!

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The Emperors Reading Room in the Imperial City
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Just a gold dragon, watching over where the Forbidden Purple City once stood

On our way to our next destination we stopped off at the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Before getting to Hoi An we’d visited the Son My Memorial, the site of a massacre committed by a corps of the US army during the war, and Vinh Moc was the next stop on our Vietnam war history tour. I hadn’t managed to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh because I was ill, so I was glad that we got the chance to visit some Viet Cong Tunnels on our way up North. The tunnels span kilometres, running from the ocean inland and walking through them it was impossible to imagine people living and working entirely underground. They even had a working hospital dug into the tunnels, and a number of babies were born underground. I’d heard that the Cu Chi Tunnels are so small that you have to crawl through parts, so I was pretty glad that the Vinh Moc Tunnels are big enough to allow you to walk through them, even if some parts require some ducking.

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After this little history lesson we motored on to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a park in the north of the island famous for its limestone karsts. The town of Phong Nha is a very weird place, it’s literally just one long road dotted with hotels, shops and bars and kind of looks like it ended up there by accident. The vast caves are the main reason people visit Phong Nha, and so we headed off to Paradise Cave, one of the longest caves in the world, ready to explore the first of its 31 kilometres. The whole of the National Park is quite touristy so the cave is set up for visitors, with wooden walkways and lights illuminating different rock formations. Even so it was a vast, amazing space to wander through, and it’s impossible to imagine that a cave this big, and this impressive, was only discovered in 2006. After visiting Paradise Cave I also got the chance to go to the Dark Cave, a zip-lining experience that turned out to be a lot of fun. After zip lining across the river you walk deep into the dark cave and end up in a natural mud bath which was the weirdest feeling. It’s kind of like being in water except the mud is really thick and makes you float like crazy, so it’s almost impossible to stand up and trying to move just causes you to flip over. It’s was weird but incredibly good fun, especially as it was lit only by everyones head torches, and getting in and out involved slipping along mud tunnels and down muddy slopes. It did take a very long time to wash off all that mud though, but kayaking up the river and zip lining into it afterwards did help a little.

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 Pictures really don’t do this cave justice

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Phong Nha was the gateway to our time in the karst region of Vietnam and our next stop was Ninh Binh, again famous for its limestone formations and mountains (and one of the locations, along with Phong Nha and Halong Bay, for the movie Kong: Skull Island. We went to see it in Hanoi, just so we could spot the places we’d toured through, which was just as well because it was rubbish. Not Pacific Rim bad, but pretty bad). While in Ninh Binh we did a leisurely boat tour through Tam Coc, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, a series of caves and karsts dotting a river that runs through such countryside. Ever since leaving Hue the weather had deteriorated pretty dramatically, and that culminated in an incredibly cold boat ride that I was not in any way dressed for, and intermittent rain. Luckily, the weather didn’t detract too much from the amazing scenery and general peacefulness of the whole experience. It’s not too hard to imagine a giant, prehistoric beast roaming this countryside, and I did have to hum the Jurassic Park theme tune once or twice while we were on the boat, just so that I could really get into it!

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With our tour of the karst region more or less done there was only one more stop on the Stray tour before it was all over, Hanoi. In keeping with the theme of the North the weather was predictably horrible, but this didn’t stop us from doing a walking tour of some of the sites in Hanoi. First stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Palace complex. I had wanted to go into the mausoleum, simply because I was really intrigued by the whole idea of Ho Chi Minh having been embalmed in the USSR and then shipped back to Vietnam to go on show for all eternity. Unfortunately we happened to visit on the same day as every single school child in Vietnam (apparently schools use a visit to the mausoleum as an incentive for children to do well in school), combine this with a boat load of tourists and we were really not prepared to stand in a 2 hour queue just to file past a dead body. Instead we wandered around the palace complex, formerly the home of the French Governor General of Vietnam and taken over by the communists in 1945, and where Ho Chi Minh used to live. A few of the buildings are sporadically in use by the Vietnamese government but it’s mainly a tourist attraction, with Ho Chi Minh’s former homes and a selection of cars presented to him by various regimes on display. Again the place was packed with school kids and tourists, so it was quite a relief to escape into the crazy Hanoi streets. I’ve definitely said before how much the traffic in Vietnam terrifies me, and there’s no better example of how crazy it is then when, while attempting to cross the road, one of our guides suddenly jumped behind me shouting “watch out!” and the other suddenly legged it across the road screaming. I am honestly amazed that I left Vietnam in one piece.

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Anyway, after the crowds and the near death road experience we headed off to the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam. It’s a place filled with shrines to previous emperors and ancient symbols, and has a very Chinese feel, thanks to the repeated Chinese occupations of Vietnam. Interestingly, the stone tablets that line the first courtyard, and depict the names of scholars who attended the university, are written on in Vietnamese, but using Chinese characters. During the Chinese occupations the Vietnamese adopted the alphabet but used it with their own language, they could not read or write in Chinese. The final stop o our tour was the Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in the late 19th century to house Vietnamese rebels, and used by the Viet Cong during the war  to hold American POWs (when it was known to as the Hanoi Hilton). Famously, a group of prisoners escaped through the sewers in the late 1940s to join the Vietnamese resistance efforts and many of them became high ranking members of the North Vietnamese government. It’s an interesting museum but, like those I visited in Ho Chi Minh city, is pretty filled with propaganda. I don’t doubt that the treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners during the French occupation was pretty horrific, especially those seen as political rebels, but a large section of the museum is dedicated to the prison’s use as a facility to hold American POWs (mainly pilots shot down over the territory of North Vietnam) and some of the information in this part is pretty hard to believe. For example, a whole room details how well the prisoners were treated, and how their food and accommodation was far better in Hoa Lo than it had been in the US Army. With the testimonies of various released POWs stating various human rights abuses in Hoa Lo, including various forms of torture, I don’t think the prison was quite as rosy during the war as the museum makes out. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating place to visit.

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Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo was the last stop on the Stray tour, and after trip with our tour guides to get egg coffee (or egg hot chocolate in my case) which sounds disgusting but is actually amazing, it was time to strike out on our own. We had one final full day in Hanoi before setting off to explore Halong Bay and Sapa, and seeing as how the weather was still awful we decided to spend it shopping and eating. I loved the food across Vietnam and was not sad to spend an entire day eating Pho and Banh Mi, and trying the famous street side BBQs that dot the old quarter of Hanoi, where you’re given your own little BBQ and cook your meat, vegetables and bread at your table. I will definitely be going back to this country for the food, as if I need another thing to add to my list of why I want to visit Vietnam! I really liked the old quarter of Hanoi with all its hustle and rickety old buildings, but the majority of it has been transformed into a bit of a tourist mecca with knock off shops and crappy bars that ruin the vibe a little. It’s still cool to wander down the roads and alleyways, past tiny restaurants with little plastic chairs and tables set up on the street for customers. And it’s hilarious to watch the restaurant owners madly move everything and everyone inside when the police come, because it’s actually illegal to set up restaurants on the street, just to have everything move back outside five minutes later, and then have the whole process repeated every half an hour or so. So all in all the old quarter of Hanoi was a lovely and fascinating place to stay, not quite as crazy as the rest of the city surrounding it, and bit too touristy for my liking but still a great place to eat and shop for a few days.

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Enter a caption Hanoi’s old quarter is colourful and filled with road side street sellers and weird little shops when you escape the tourist strip

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Leah Out X

P.S Keep up to date on my adventures (in real time, no less!) on Instagram

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