On 3rd November we left Hanoi and began the long journey south, heading for Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City, but in practice still called Saigon), travelling by bus. We became accustomed to long-distance bus travel while in South America, but found the Vietnamese buses quite different.
In South America, the seats were like very comfortable armchairs, and tilted back (some almost flat) for sleeping. In Vietnam, ‘sleeping buses’ have three rows of two-tier bunks, with narrow aisles in between. You have to take your shoes off when you board, and are given a plastic bag to put them in.
You do not have specific seats (or bunks) allocated, so finding places is a free-for-all, and you cannot guarantee being close to your travelling companion. We found the bunks not bad for sleeping, but very uncomfortable for day journeys, when you want to sit up.
The journey from Hanoi to Saigon is well over 1000 miles, and almost 40 hours of bus travel. We did it in 9 days, with four stops en route.
Our first stop going south was Ninh Binh, in order to take the scenic boat ride through Tam Coc, a river that flows between towering limestone rocks, and through three caves on the way.
We combined this with a visit to Hoa Lu, site of the tenth century capital of an early Vietnamese dynasty.
We passed two pleasant days in the city of Hue, which sits astride the Perfume River. In addition to exploring the citadel (on foot), we took a bus tour of the mausoleums of three former emperors – may not sound very exciting, but they were all interesting in different ways, and one in particular was in a very picturesque setting.
We returned from our mausoleum tour in one of the ‘dragon boats’ that are very common on the river. The next afternoon, we chartered our very own dragon boat (at amazingly low cost!) in order to visit a temple and a pagoda further upriver. Sailing along with the sun on our faces was a very relaxing and enjoyable experience.
We were back on the river that evening, for a folksong performance in one of the bigger (catamaran style) dragon boats.
Hoi An is an incredibly picturesque town, with old buildings (yellow ochre, Ian says) lining a narrow river. The reflections, and the lights at night, are really beautiful, and we were happy to spend time wandering around.
From Hoi An we did a tour to My Son, to see the ruins of the sanctuaries where kings from the Cham dynasty were buried. They are in an atmospheric jungle setting, although our challenge was to take photos which were not spoilt by the large number of tourists there! My Son was used as a base by Vietcong soldiers, and was therefore bombed by the Americans in 1969. Some of the temples were destroyed, and we saw bomb craters as well as the remaining temple ruins.
Our final stop was the town of Mui Ne, which has become a major holiday resort – a kind of Great Yarmouth-on-the-South China Sea. Its main attraction – and the reason for our visit – is the sand dunes (red, yellow and white) just outside the town. We took a sunset jeep tour, which unfortunately was somewhat spoilt by the lack of sun that afternoon! The highlight was probably a walk up the ‘Fairy Stream’, splashing through shallow water with weirdly-shaped sandstone formations on either side.
And so to Saigon – ready for the next stage of our adventure.