Vietnam: from north to south

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.

On board a ‘sleeping’ bus

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.

Are we nearly there yet?

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.

Ninh Binh

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.

Rowing into Tam Coc

Boat people at Tam Coc often row with their feet

Rock formations at Tam Coc

Rowing through a cave

We combined this with a visit to Hoa Lu, site of the tenth century capital of an early Vietnamese dynasty.

Landscape near Ninh Binh

Temple at Hoa Lu


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.

Ian and friend at the mausoleum of Minh Mang

Part of the mausoleum of Minh Mang

Minh Mang mausoleum

Detail of ceramic decoration at the mausoleum of Khai Dinh

Pavilion at the mausoleum of Tu Duc

Entrance to the citadel of Hue

Part of Hue citadel – badly damaged by wars and fire

Detail of a building in Hue citadel

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.

Dragon boats lined up on the riverside at Hue

On board our private dragon boat

Thien Mu pagoda

We were back on the river that evening, for a folksong performance in one of the bigger (catamaran style) dragon boats.

A multicoloured group of folk singers

The floating restaurant at Hue, illuminated

Hoi An

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.

Hoi An waterfront

A bizarre sculpture in a temple at Hoi An – dragon orgy?

Lampshades R Us

The bridge at Hoi An, lit by lanterns

A folk song and dance performance at Hoi An (Santa and his helpers?)

Boy selling paper lanterns

Paper lanterns on the river

Hoi An reflections

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.

Cham ruins at My Son

Temple dancer at My Son

Mui Ne

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.

The ‘fairy stream’ at Mui Ne

Rock formations by the ‘fairy stream’

Sand dunes

On the beach at Mui Ne

And so to Saigon – ready for the next stage of our adventure.


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