On the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Mountain and city retreats in South Vietnam

The next stop in Vietnam was the highland town of Da Lat, and it took just under a day to get there from Hoi An. The first leg was via overnight train along the Reunification Express from Da Nang to Nha Trang, and unfortunately with my last minute decision I was told there were only seats available (when I instantly recalled the nightmare leg in China, still freshly etched in my memory). I figured it couldn’t possibly be as bad as before, and happily it wasn’t. The carriage was still packed full and there were still people sleeping on the floor, but it did clear up somewhat later in the night. I managed a decent 4 hours of sleep hunched up on the seat next to me before being woken by the obligatory karaoke music in the morning.

Reunification Express from Da Nang to Nha Trang

Reunification Express from Da Nang to Nha Trang

After admittedly free riding at a luxury beach resort to freshen up and getting a quick haircut on the sidewalk, a four hour coach ride through the highlands brought me to Da Lat. But it felt as though I had arrived back in England, as the weather was cold and rainy.

Da Lat is a former French colonial town. Much of the architecture still reflects its French roots, with some particularly well preserved buildings such as the railway station. Today, Da Lat is a major producer of fruit, vegetables and flowers thanks to the cool highland climate. It’s also a tourist hot spot due to the opportunities for adventure activities in the surrounding hills.

The former French railway station in Da Lat

The former French railway station in Da Lat

Picture: Night market

And I didn’t hold back. On the first day I went canyoning down various cliffs and waterfalls, swimming through rapids and jungle trekking. It was my first time canyoning, and I quickly got the hang of it – the trick was to be confident to lean back perpendicular to the cliff. The trudge afterwards through mud pools at chin height reminded me of the scene from Forrest Gump, especially when the rain came down, sideways and from underneath! My best memory here was taking a leap of faith and jumping off the top of a waterfall, which to this day I’m still surprised I actually did. It was a rewarding but bruising and bloody day, thanks in no part to my terrible choice of footwear.

Canyoning beside a waterfall

Canyoning beside a waterfall


…and then jumping from another

The following day it was back on the motorbike again on a tour around the surrounding countryside. We stopped off at a few notable places, such as a nearby flower, rice-wine and bamboo basket factories. There were some quite beautiful Buddhist temples too.


Rice wine preserved with fresh snake

Perhaps the most intriguing stop was at a silk factory. In short – thousands of silkworms are intensively hatched on bamboo fences and eat intensively for a month to produce mucus that forms a cocoon. These cocoons are then attached to a spinning machine to collect the silk while the silkworms are boiled alive in a bath. The whole process is labour intensive and up to 1000 silkworms perish to produce the equivalent silk for a single shirt. I’ll be honest – I had never but much prior thought into where silk comes from but it’s safe to say I’ll be staying well away from it going forward!

Silk factory

Silk factory

We finished the tour the tribal Lat village, A.K.A. ‘Chicken village’. It’s aptly named – not because of the large flock of birds there – but because an enormous concrete chicken statue in the middle.

My accommodation was a hostel called Da Lat Friendly Fun. I’m constantly astounded by the experiences that these home stay accommodations offer. Though very simple sleeping arrangements, £4 a night got me a comfy bed, free breakfast and dinner, great company with fellow travellers but most importantly the affectionate care of an owner that went above and beyond to serve me and other guests, ahead of any monetary desires. No wonder it was rated the best hostel in the world last year.

Inside the 100 Roofs Cafe. It's more of a bar from Middle Earth than a cafe as it's designed as an overgrown maze.

Inside the 100 Roofs Cafe. It’s like a bar you’d find in Middle Earth, and designed as an overgrown maze.

The night bus

I had heard many horror stories about overnight bus trips in SE Asia, especially in terms of safety. But I figured I’d bite the bullet and take one to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, or Saigon as the locals refer to it). After all, I’d save a night’s accommodation and more importantly not consume a whole day in transit. How bad could it be?

As it turned out, pretty horrendous.

The coach was scheduled to leave at 22:30 and arrive at 06:00 AM in HCMC city centre. After removing my shoes and boarding the bus, I was shown to my reclining seat at the back. But as it so happened, the back row was where the seats were five abreast rather than 1-1-1 like the rest of the coach was arranged. Somehow, me, two fellow (six foot and well built) Brits and a Vietnamese chap where about to share a king sized bed that night.

It's not a great image as photography was the least of my worries on this journey, but you get the idea.

It’s not a great image as photography was the least of my worries on this journey, but you get the idea.

I coincidentally stayed with these two Brits in my hostel (but with plenty of personal space between us), and had been warned by none other than them to avoid the back row at all costs. The reasons were obvious. The ‘seats’ were barely sixty centimetres across and not long enough for me to stretch my legs without giving the guy in front a head massage. And a large metal bar ran just a few centimetres above my head which would almost come into contact over road bumps. The pair were better prepared than me though, they took some opium and were completely out cold within a few minutes. One of them was snoring directly into my ear and even had his arm on me at one point. I couldn’t help but laugh!

A long day in the countryside was the only reason I managed three hours sleep before being abruptly awoken by the passenger attendant, asking only us three tourists to prepare to leave the bus. I checked the map and it appeared as though we were still well outside of the city centre, plus it was only half 4 – an hour and a half earlier than scheduled arrival. Surely, that doesn’t happen, I said to myself. To me, this and the whole night’s events made it seem like one big setup, as if we were being taken for a ride (pun intended). I demanded an explanation but the attendant’s English wasn’t coherent. He closed the door after a long exchange and the bus continued on – outwards, away from the city. My suspicious attitude, a remnant from my experience in Hanoi, had got the better of me. It was 5AM by the time we reached the bus terminal. Eventually after an unforgettable night, I made it to the HCMC Nguyen Shack homestay.

Ho Chi Minh City

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

I got on much better with HCMC than I did Hanoi. Despite it being larger in both size and population, it feels slightly more orderly. It’s feasible to walk around the city centre as the sidewalks are clearer (although many moto drivers use them as shortcuts). I didn’t receive so much hassle from the drivers and the whole atmosphere is a bit more relaxed and friendly, but having said that, I met others who had a contrasting experience.

When I wasn’t walking around, the best alternative was Uber Moto which works flawlessly and is unbelievably cheap. 3-4 miles of scooting around would cost about 15p in total.

I didn’t find a great deal of things to do in HCMC itself, but I’ll name a few highlights. The War Remnants Museum is a desperately sad place to visit as it showcases the extreme suffering inflicted during the war and since. An exhibition on Agent Orange shows the sickening consequences of the defoliant dropped on the country and how so many people today continue to live with bodily defects. There’s even a preserved, deformed foetus on display which stirred up much emotion in me.

War Remnants museum

War Remnants museum

The Ho Chi Minh trail was used throughout the war for moving people and supplies from the communist north to the Viet Cong insurgency in the south. The Cu Chi tunnels form another tunnel complex near HCMC and the border of Cambodia, which form the southern most part of the trail.

The tunnels here weren’t used for living but even then they remain incredibly small, so much so I couldn’t manage more than 30 metres before escaping. As part of the tour we were told how the Viet Cong soldiers kept their whereabouts hidden by covering up tunnel entrances like termite mounds, and disguising the scent with chilli peppers to fool sniffer dogs. The threat to their lives wasn’t just from overhead bombings but also disease from insects and scorpions that were rampant in the tunnels, which even today are shrouded in thick jungle . We also saw objects used as part of guerrilla tactics, like trapdoors and snares that would end up killing thousands of American troops and paralysing many more with fear of unavoidable death.

Now you see me..

Now you see me.. you don't. you don’t.

Other than these sights, it was great just wander around the city centre, past historical relics such as the Central Post office and Independence Palace, and also through various parks (the city in general appears very green). There’s an abundance of cafes (my favourite was Prem Bistro, which serves a plethora of hearty veggie food) and of course spas. I had the most intense massage ever at a place called Temple Leaf Spa where I essentially became a human trampoline for the Thai masseuse.

With my visa for Vietnam due to expire, I set off on my final stop in the south of the country: Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta.


Next: The Mekong Delta

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