Vietnam round up 🇻🇳

We travelled pretty much the whole length of Vietnam during our 25 day stay. After celebrating Tết in Hanoi, we kayaked in Hạ Long Bay, explored the ancient capital of Huế, cycled the backwaters of Hội An, ventured to the colonial hilltop town of Đà Lạt, ate our way through the culinary capital of HCMC and finally visited the island prison of Côn Đảo. It was our second visit to Vietnam, and the country reaffirmed its place as one of our favourites in the world.

Carbon 🚆

Our travel to and around Vietnam was responsible for the second highest emissions of any country we’ve visited on this trip to date. This was largely due to our flight from Tokyo to Hanoi, and although we would have preferred to make this connection by train through China, this still wasn’t possible due to the impact of the pandemic.

Our carbon emissions from air travel now account for more than half of our total emissions, despite our attempts to minimise flying. It just goes to show the importance of optimising flights (i.e. fly the shortest distance possible and avoid indirect flights) before worrying too much about ground transportation.

Our travel to Vietnam has pushed our total carbon emissions since leaving London to over four tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, so we’ve offset another tonne through the Climate+ portfolio. A log of all of our offsets is available in the Gold Standard Impact Registry.

Carbon emissions aside, flying is a pretty compelling way to get around Vietnam. Mick & Helen can attest that their internal flights were affordable, comfortable, fast and reliable. In comparison, long distance trains and buses in Vietnam seemed to leave something to be desired, although the scenery we saw out of the window was spectacular. Overall, train travel in Vietnam was quite the contrast to Japan’s Shinkansen!

Cost 💰

In general, Vietnam was one of the most affordable countries we’ve visited. In fact, if we exclude our expenditure on our arrival flight and our splurge on the cruise through Hạ Long Bay, I’m sure Vietnam would give Georgia a run for its money.

Cats 🐈

We were saddened to find that Vietnam only came in with a score of 2.64 cats per day, although to be fair we didn’t pay for any cat encounters like we did in Japan and South Korea.

While it seemed very common for households to keep dogs as pets, cats on the other hand seemed to live on the fringes of society. In fact, we learned that keeping cats is unlucky according to Vietnamese superstition, while keeping dogs apparently brings good fortune. Furthermore, the year of the cat (which started the day after we arrived in Vietnam) is not a lucky year, so Vietnamese folks are extra careful to avoid anything that could bring additional bad luck into their household.

On the plus side, the vast majority of the cats that we did see turned out to be ginger. We’re not sure why this was, but we’re certainly not complaining!

Exemplary ginger cat

Still, we did come across a couple of cats that were more than worthy of an award…

🏅Friendliest shopkeeper in Hanoi

🏅Loudest breakfast companion

Culture 👨‍👩‍👧

🎤 Neighbourhood karaoke: Karaoke seemed surprisingly popular in Vietnam, but not as we knew it. Performances weren’t confined to bars or private rooms, but instead were broadcast throughout a neighbourhood from a household’s front room, at all times of day. On top of this, Vietnamese karaoke music is quite, erm, different, to the catchy hooks of western or Korean pop music, and instead the music is slow, meandering, and devoid of any repetition. And even if the music were to our taste, the execution was a little hit and miss, with many men seemingly unaware of the absolute racket they were creating. This is one of the few elements of Vietnamese culture that we were glad to leave behind!

🍜 Food: Affordable street food undoubtedly rules supreme in Vietnam. We learned a good phrase in Vietnam, which translates to something like: “westerners eat with their eyes, Vietnamese eat with their bellies”, which means: don’t judge a restaurant by its appearance, but by its reputation for flavour.

🛌 Public napping: This is one cultural difference that Sara could really get on board with – napping anywhere, any time! She still needs a bit more practice before she can sleep perched on a motorbike, though.

We enjoyed our time in Vietnam so much that ended up staying a little longer than we initially intended, but are happy to be leaving the country with no regrets. The next country on our hit list is Cambodia, where we’ll spend 11 days exploring the capital city of Phnom Penh, the colonial riverside town of Battambang, and the ancient temples of Angkor.

Voyaging to the Côn Đảo islands

After bidding farewell to Mum and Dad (who were off to northern India), we set our sights on Côn Đảo, an archipelago in the South China Sea. We’ve moved on about every third day for the past 6 months, so we decided it was about time to slow down for a few days to catch up on planning and writing this blog. It turns out that we’re terrible at this, though, so we still have plenty to talk about!

We set off from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) on a two-day journey via Sóc Trăng, a city in the Mekong Delta.

We stayed in Sóc Trăng overnight and made friends with the neighbourhood children near our accommodation, who turned up en masse to check us out as soon as we arrived.

The next day, we caught the SuperDong ferry (what a name) across to Côn Đảo. It was the roughest 3 hours I’ve ever spent at sea, with predictable consequences for me. Meanwhile, in order to distract himself from planning our escape route (the conditions were quite scary), Oli was busy calculating a ‘chunder rate’ for those sitting in our part of the boat. It was an impressive 22% – at least I wasn’t alone, for once!

Thankfully, Côn Đảo was definitely worth the long and eventful journey. Our first view of the main island was exploring the peaceful streets of its capital, Côn Sơn Town. We’d read that it would be quiet, but we couldn’t quite believe how quiet!

Although the island now appears to be a relaxed, carefree place, its dark history as a notorious prison island used by both the French and the American-backed South Vietnamese government is what attracts most (domestic) visitors. With the lecture we received in Matera not to take things at face value still ringing in our ears months later, we decided we couldn’t just go to the beach and ignore the island’s past. So, we braced ourselves and began by visiting the Bảo Tàng Côn Đảo Museum, which introduced the island’s history, including involvement from the British East India Company, the Portuguese and the French from 1861. The museum also gave us some insight into the horrors of the prisons on the island (known as ‘hell on earth’) and the treatment of the prisoners, who were subjected to cramped and unsanitary conditions, hard labour and torture. In the latter years, this was an attempt to force the prisoners to denounce their communist beliefs.

Artwork from an ex-prisoner describing the conditions they faced during hard labour

It was a helpful (if harrowing) introduction that continued until the lights abruptly went out and we were left in pitch black in the windowless musuem. At first, we thought it was a powercut, but no one came to retrieve us from the darkness and we eventually concluded that the museum staff had cut the power so they could leave early for lunch! We switched on our torches and found our way outside.

Our next stop were the notorious tiger cages, a hidden part of one of the prison complexes where prisoners were kept in even more horrendous conditions than in the main prison. Each cell had a metal slatted roof, through which guards poked sharp sticks and poured quicklime, giving prisoners chemical burns.

We’d learnt that morning how an American delegation had discovered the existence of the rumoured tiger cages based on a map drawn by an ex-prisoner in 1970, and how the prisons were subsequently shut down. It was pretty chilling to see them in person, and neither of us could believe how recently they had been used or bring ourselves to step into any of the cells.

Feeling suitably enlightened about the history of the island, we headed to the town beach to embrace its contemporary charms (and cheer ourselves up).

We’d read that hiring a moped was pretty much essential to get around the island, but in the spirit of being ‘nearly neutral’ (and because we are stubborn), we hired some bicycles instead and had a very pleasant time pootling around the traffic-free streets.

At least, we were having a very pleasant time until we had the idea of cycling to the other side of the island to one of its best beaches, Bãi Đầm Trầu. We looked at the route and elevation graph, decided there was no way we could sensibly cycle it in the heat, let the idea sit for half a day and then decided we’d be missing out if we didn’t at least try. Typical!

Vertical axis shows elevation in metres; horizontal axis shows distance in kilometres

I know the elevation graph doesn’t look that bad (we’d happily walk this and more), but I would like to point out that it was 32 degrees and our bikes were…rudimentary! It was quite a cycle, but on the way we did meet some macaques and even some giant black squirrels, and the beautiful beach at the end made it feel very worthwhile.

We’d read about a ‘secret’ beach that could be reached by climbing over some rocks at the end of the main beach, and it was stunning, so this is where we spent most of our time.

However, the main beach did have one big draw – it was right at the end of the island’s only runway, so we could watch the (infrequent) flights coming in to land over the beach. The planes felt so close we could practically touch them! When Oli was tracking flights so that we knew what was on its way, it really brought home that the islands can be reached by a quick 45-minute hop from Ho Chi Minh City rather than our two-day epic. We desperately tried to feel virtuous about our journey rather than just a bit silly for how long it had taken!

We celebrated our mammoth cycle (and not being eaten by any angry monkeys – some of them really didn’t like us cycling past, especially the time I called out, “Hello, friends!” to them) by visiting Kem Côn Đảo Dừa Đất, an incredibly popular local institution that was dangerously close to our hotel. Their speciality was a delicious coconut ice cream with tender curls of green coconut, served in a coconut bowl and accompanied by coconut water. Never has ice cream felt so well-deserved (although I should probably confess that this isn’t the only time we visited)!

To our great relief, the crossing back to mainland Vietnam was incredibly smooth and the chunder rate remained at 0%. We caught an evening bus back to HCMC and everything was going very well until we went to board our bus after a rest stop to find that it had disappeared 😬 We both had our day bags with passports and valuables so it could have been much worse, but I wasn’t wearing my shoes! On some Vietnamese buses, you take your shoes off at the door and then at rest stops, you can either bring your shoes back out with you and have to faff repeatedly with grubby laces (as Oli did) or borrow from a big box of flip flops (as I did). Unfortunately my borrowed ‘pair’ were a bright orange comedy duo of about a UK size 5 and size 11! Just as I was scurrying lopsidedly up and down the bus stands to check that our bus really was nowhere to be found, Oli managed to ascertain that it had taken itself off to the bus wash and would be back in a few minutes. Phew! Thankfully, the rest of the journey passed without incident and we made it back to HCMC for a quick pitstop before catching a cross-border bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

High-rise and herbal remedies in Ho Chi Minh City

Following a short but sweet visit to the colonial highland town of Đà Lạt, we were back on the road with our sights set on Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, and also still commonly, referred to as Sài Gòn). Once again, Team Tortoise and Team Hare went our separate ways:

🐢 Team Tortoise (Oli & Sara) boarded an eight-hour (daytime) sleeper bus in Đà Lạt, transferred to a minibus on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC for short), and walked the final 1.5 km to our hotel

🐇 Team Hare (Helen & Mick) hopped on a 50-minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City Airport, and took a taxi into the city

Unsurprisingly, flying was much faster and quite a bit more expensive, but emitted about five times as much carbon as taking the bus. Although their flight required them to depart our Đà Lạt hotel at 6am, Helen & Mick’s time advantage did give them the chance to go for lunch, visit a market, take a nap, and still be waiting for us in the hotel lobby looking refreshed when we arrived hot and tired! Still, I think the bus worked out much more favourably than it did on the last leg of our journey!

Team Hare 🐇Team Tortoise 🐢
Time4 hours10 hours
Carbon106 kgCO2e20 kgCO2e

As we arrived in the city, HCMC felt incredibly busy, with its eight-lane roads and endless tide of motorbikes. Even when applying Sara’s guide to crossing the road and heeding the pedestrian lights (where present), navigating HCMC’s streets wasn’t exactly a relaxing affair. Still, we loved the city’s endless energy, and couldn’t wait to eat some more Vietnamese specialities. After all, when I asked my HCMC-born barber in Hanoi what his favourite food was from home, he replied with enthusiasm: “EVERYTHING TASTES BETTER IN HO CHI MINH, MAN!”

Top of Sara’s food list was Bún chả, a dish of cold vermicelli noodles, pork meatballs and barbecued pork belly, fresh herbs and pickled carrot, all in a delicious broth and accompanied by a very deep fried spring roll. Despite this dish’s origins in Hanoi, it had so far evaded us since our arrival in Vietnam, so we put our faith in my barber’s theory that it would taste even better in HCMC and headed to Bún chả Hồ Gươm to get our fill. We were pretty hungry by the time we arrived, and the peppery spring rolls, salty barbecued pork, sticky noodles and huge pile of fresh leaves certainly hit the spot.

HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam (and has a population similar to that of London!), so we took a lift up to the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower to get a bit of perspective. Bizarrely, this skyscraper incorporates a helipad three-quarters of the way up, and the appearance makes it look like a UFO has crash-landed and become wedged in the building. It’s this helipad that contains the observation deck, where we watched the rush hour traffic flow through the city before the sun set behind the high-rise offices.

The next day we took a taxi out to Chợ Lớn, HCMC’s Chinese quarter, which holds the record as the world’s largest Chinatown! Chợ Lớn is home to a handful of colourful temples, as well as a whole street of medicinal herb merchants.

We came across a huge variety of architecture as we walked the streets of HCMC. From the beautifully restored French-colonial Central Post Office and the vibrant pink gothic exterior of Tan Dinh Catholic Church, to the crumbling facades of Chợ Lớn and the ultra-modern skyscrapers of District 1, HCMC seemed to have something for everyone.

For our last dinner together, we decided to go out with a bang with a meal at Barbecue Garden. Our table featured a pit in the centre, into which the staff inserted a bowl of red-hot coals covered with a grill on which we cooked a handful of kebabs and vegetables. I’m going to blame the low light (rather than the draft beer) for the blurry photo below!

It was then sadly time to say goodbye to Mick & Helen, as they headed off to the airport to continue their trip through India. They called a Grab taxi (the SE-Asia equivalent of Uber), but were a little concerned when a tiny hatchback turned up. In contrast, the taxi driver looked downright panicked when he saw the four of us standing there, but relaxed when he realised only two people were travelling. He then optimistically tried to fit one of the suitcases into the boot, before giving up and stacking them on the backseat, leaving Helen & Mick to squeeze into what little space remained! We really enjoyed exploring Vietnam together – thanks so much for joining us on this leg of the trip 🙂

While Helen & Mick headed to Delhi, we continued south to the archipelago of Côn Đảo to try to get our heads around the beautiful islands’ harrowing past.