The following is an account of our journey from Phong Nha to the historic city of Hoi An, inclusive of crammed mini vans, tunnels, abandoned water parks and the best part: Hai Van Pass on scooters, Top Gear style!
Phong Nha to Hue via DMZ
There are many options to get from Phong Nha to Hue. We decided to take the bus. However, as the 124 mile journey would take 5 hours we opted for the tourist bus option that would take us via the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
The DMZ area marked during the Vietnam War the divide between the South and North. It followed the Ben Hai River all the way from the coast to the Laos border, and troops from both governments were barred from a 5 km area on either side.
The fact that it was demilitarised however didn’t stop the USA from heavily bombing this area as they believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and ammunition to the guerrilla fighters in the south.
Between 1966 and 1972 the US army dropped over 9,000 tonnes of bombs in this area, that is more than 7 tonnes on average per villager!! And yet, despite this not a single villager lost their life.
Vinh Moc Tunnels
Burrowed deep under the surface the villagers dg a 2km tunnel with their hands! It is quite a remarkable engineering feat, constructed over three levels (12 metres, 15 metres and 23 metres deep) it housed over 300 people for over three years and was able to keep all the villagers safe, despite America’s best effort to kill them.
The tour’s grandfather was one of the men who dug the tunnels, and her dad was one of the 17 kids to be born in the tunnel! Unlike the famous Cu Chi Tunnels which were constructed to fight, these were created as shelter. They built small nooks to provide living quarters for families (6 people per 2 x 1 metre space), they had a meeting room and they even had a maternity ward!
The living quarters were spaced to give families privacy, the
kitchen was built with a clever system to avoid smoke being detected, channels
were built to avoid sea or rain water from flooding the tunnels and they even
had a clean water well inside the tunnels! With 13 entrances/exists (7 of which
faced the sea) they had great ventilation which helped keep illness at bay. The
deeper levels also ensured their safety during the drilling bombs the US
It’s incredible to think that they lived in darkness’s (although they had candles they rarely used them to avoid constantly breathing in the smoke) in these tiny tunnels. No more than 1.60cm in height and 1.5m wide its lucky the Vietnamese aren’t tall!
A fantastic story of grit and determination. No excuses, the kids still went to school, the adults still watched movies and babies were still born healthy! A really interesting tour and definitely worth the detour however I will let you decide what the above is true and what is communist propaganda! Regardless though, still an incredible example of ingenuity and resilience!
After a long, cramped and sweaty journey we made it to Hue, the capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945 and the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors in ancient history. Nestled on the Perfume River and known for its citadel and pagodas I was not expecting a vibrant, young, affluent city. No fake Gucci sellers on these streets! Instead it was filled with good quality arts and crafts and genuine looking shops. Although the streets were busy there was not the chaos of Hanoi. Everywhere just seemed more polite, less aggressive and more upper class. Except for the “Benidorm”-like street where there was loud music, busy bars, lots of beer and lots of Koreans dancing to Gangnam Style!!
Abandoned Water Park
Hue was only a stop over for us, and there is undoubtedly 100 amazing things we could have got up to whilst in the city, however, the one thing that caught our eye was the Abandoned Water Park. There is something alluring about areas that have been taken back by the wild.
The abandoned water park is not necessarily on everyone’s radar, but certainly worth the visit (and £1 bribery)! It was like Chernobyl but in extreme heat! The park was closed during the war and never reopened. You aren’t allowed in however the guard is not opposed to making a couple of bucks (and a cigarette) for every backpacker that wants to break the rules. It’s not only the guard profiting though, a local lady has even set up a bar in the park to quench trespassers thirst. There is always a business opportunity if you are willing to take it!
In the park we found the abandoned ticket booth, aquarium, slides, wave pool and kids play area. Many say it’s eerie, the perfect setting for a Stephen King book… I can’t say anything like that crossed my mind, I was simply intrigued by the humongous dragon sitting in the centre of the lake! I’m not sure why abandoned places are so intriguing, but I am glad we went!
Hue to Hoi An
The inspiration for our Vietnam trip came from a Top Gear Special where Richard Hamon, May and Clarkson buy cheap scooters to make the journey from Saigon to Halong Bay. Bearing in mind that they were the reason we were in Vietnam it only seemed right to retrace some of their steps (in reverse) and ride a scooter from Hue to the ancient city of Hoi An. The journey took us over Hai Van Pass, a 21km mountain pass, famous for its hair pin bends and amazing scenery.
Le Family Riders is a family run business that operates a number of day and multi-day motorbike trips in Vietnam. You can choose to ride behind one of their drivers or to ride your own bike. We opted for the latter of course, lied about our biking experience and got given 135 cc bikes which we weren’t even licensed to drive. What could go wrong?! The helmets didn’t fit, mine had no lights or brake lights and the right hand mirror again wouldn’t stay in place. At least the horn worked on this one!
After asking us to ride a couple of laps round the car park to ensure we weren’t utterly useless we set off on our 140km all day journey… and the guide was not hanging about! Out the car park, U turn into oncoming traffic and ready steady go! I’m so glad we rented the bikes in Phong Nha, otherwise there is no chance I would have been happy going that fast so soon!
The journey was a mix of main roads (scary lorries), back lanes in the countryside (bumpy) and city centre (chaos) interspersed with a number of stops to either try local cuisine or learn about the area.
Our first stop was a roadside cafe (shack) where we were served some really nice peanut rice cake. The only way I can describe it is as a hard pancake covered with honey and topped with peanuts. Very yummy.
From there we made our way to a fishing village. Similar to the floating village the government has now provided them with free land to build their homes however before then the entire family would live on a boat. A whole family would include parents, grandparents and 4-6 children. We are talking tiny boats!
Back on our bikes we rode on for another 30 minutes before turning off and heading up a dirt track. Rin, our guide, continued to ride as if we will still on tarmac whilst the rest of us struggled to keep up. Poor Doug had a loose throttle so every time he went over a bump it would bump the throttle and either jerk him forward or brake. By the time we got to the top of the lane he was feeling rather motion sick! (That was his excuse at least, I reckon it was just his driving!).
Elephant Water Fall
What was at the top of the lane? Elephant Waterfall. Why Elephant? Because there is an elephant shaped stone. It was less of a waterfall and more of a stream that the locals have created into natural pools. Not ones to miss a trick when it comes to making money, the shores were lined with huts and carpets for families to make themselves at home (and pay) securing themselves a kind of private pool.
Doug and I decided not to join is with the fun, Doug because he didn’t have a towel, and me because 99% of the girls were in shorts and T-shirt’s (Vietnamese girls are very modest) so I would have stuck out like a sore thumb in a bikini. We may not have cooled down like we would have liked to but we still enjoyed chilling watching the awkward flirting between the locals.
Back on our bikes, down the dirt track and on the road again we made our way to the base of Hai Van Pass. On the way there we went up another smaller pass at which point I realised I’d forgotten how to turn! As I came into the first bend I tried to turn the handle bar rather than lean which just resulted in an “OMG I’m about to fall off” kind of wobble. I got it after that though (thankfully!!).
Before heading up the pass we stopped to refuel at a seafood restaurant which sat on the shores of a seawater lake. A gem of a restaurant with the seafood swimming in buckets waiting for the next guest to arrive and order, the staff out on the lake with their fishing nets. It really doesn’t get much fresher than that!! Food was delicious, although too much as always. We had oysters, spring rolls, langoustines, tempura prawns and some form of fish.
Hai Van Pass
Bellies full and ready for a siesta we started the exciting part of the journey. The race up Hai Van Pass! Wowee!! Such an amazing feeling throwing the bike into the corners, winding our way up the mountain surrounded by jungle on one side and sea on the other. The road doesn’t compare to what you can easily find in Spain but still, it was the right level for only having sat on a bike twice before. Once we made it to the top we stopped to admire the view as well as explore the French and American bunkers that lie graffitied, a reminder of the not so distant war.
Back on our bikes we zoomed down the hill to the real excitement: rush hour! Now this was chaos! Cars, buses, bicycles and motorbikes everywhere! Not as bad as Hanoi, but they were still coming at us from everywhere. Bikes swerving in and out trying to get ahead, cars and buses using their bulk to push their way in, pedestrians walking on to the road, street-sellers taking the short cut by pedalling against the traffic, cars and bikes doing U turns in front of you or simply just turning across you. What a rush!!
Throughout it the guide did not slow down! Every time we got cut up, we were then having to race to catch up again, swerving in and out of the cars and other bikes. By the time we got to Marble Mountain we were whooping with excitement (well, Doug and I were, the others seems rather stressed about it all!).
Our final stop was Marble Mountains, 5 small marble and limestone hills that house a number of Buddhist temples and sanctuaries. Not really our thing so we wandered around quickly, took some photos and waited for the others whilst cooling off with a Mango shake.
We finally made it to our hotel for 7. Tired, dirty and happy! What a great experience. It might have been Doug day, but I enjoyed it just the same. Maybe there is a biker in me after all!