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Phnomenal Penh

The minibus out of Battambang weathers the literal storms of Cambodia as we rocked and swayed along the country’s perpetually-under-development roads. Yawning potholes and slick gravel make for a dynamic if perilous journey, all to a symphony of horns and protesting cattle as we slipstream farmer’s carts and poncho-clad families packed onto tiny scooters.

A quick, concussive crack of my head against the window combined with the furious utterances of an outraged biker alerted me to our arrival at the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s only true metropolis is a hive of kaleidoscopic public transport, freshly-incinerated street food and heated haggling, all to a backdrop of historic architecture and modern industry. Before we can even open the door of the minibus, tuk-tuk drivers swarm the tired passengers to offer their services and whisk us off into the night.

Only two false stops and three wrong turns later, we arrive in the heart of Khan Doun Penh district – a choose-your-own-adventure of dining, sleeping and touring and the go-to streets for lost travellers like ourselves. You’ll get used to politely turning down drivers and restaurant hosts every other minute while you drift between high street and temple courtyard with no obvious separation between the two. Orange-clad monks tap away on their phones while expertly weaving between traffic on motorbikes; elderly salesman stride slowly but confidently between furiously-honking trucks and impressively-overloaded bicycles carrying produce.

Head to the banks of Tonle Sap River and watch your head as thousands of well-fed pigeons hurtle past you to the outstretched arms of alarmed tourists. Just across the square lies the resplendent Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda – both of which typically closed for our stay in the city, but impressive even from outside the walls.

*A less-positive anecdote and word of warning about the riverside area: we fell victim to a well-choreographed group of pickpockets who grabbed Meg’s phone without us ever seeing them. After a frantic attempt to find it via the Find My IPhone app at a local cafe (and pointedly locking it to prevent access), we returned to the scene of the crime and encountered a group of women who ‘didn’t steal the phone, but know where it is, and will get the phone but how much will you pay’. They seemed outraged when I even mentioned the word ‘stolen’, but after we (falsely) claimed to only have $30 they thoughtfully produced said phone from a hiding spot around the corner and disappeared. We then discovered that they’d completely wiped the phone and destroyed all of Meg’s photos from the trip, so if that’s not your idea of a good time then hold onto your possessions in such places.

Cultural sights in the area include the gleaming Golden Temple and the towering Wat Phnom; against the shining monoliths of the 21st century, such traditional architecture would seem bizarre in any other country, but in Cambodia it’s completely within the ordinary to see ornamental golden spires and modern brutalist architecture leaning against one another.

Another key spot in the city is, sadly, the Genocide Museum – a school-turned-torture prison for the Khmer Rouge takeover, and now a memorial to ensure the atrocities within never occur again. It’s a rough hour or two’s education while walking around the museum with an audio guide, but I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s far too early in the morning for a pair of laden backpackers when the tuk-tuk arrives to whisk us away to possibly my least favourite bus ride of the entire trip (but there’s still time for that to change) – to the islands of Koh Rong.

The Bats and Bones of Battambang

Having skipped the opportunity to eat a bag of crickets, we headed away from Siem Reap to Battambang, the second-largest city in Cambodia by population – though you’d never believe it. With a tiny city centre and a few short roads either side, it feels more like a small town than a city; despite its #2 ranking its population is still less than 140,000. Even that seems too high of a number – it’s a quiet, sleepy sort of city, though not without its historic importance.

One thing that will come up a lot when you Google ‘Things To See In Cambodia’ is, unfortunately, the word ‘genocide’. The vicious Khmer Rouge takeover of the country in 1975 resulted in almost a quarter of the country’s population either being executed or dying from famine and disease, so it’s understandable that a great deal of the country‘s modern heritage would feature places like Battambang’s Killing Fields, Killing Cave and Torture Museum. You’d be hard-pressed to find a funny spin on such destinations, but it’s a hugely important aspect of the country to absorb.

A memorial stands just outside the city, containing hundreds of actual skulls of the victims and adorned with carvings depicting the horrors inflicted upon them. Outside the memorial is a booth with one incredibly friendly guard who lived through the experience himself, asking for a tiny donation (a few thousand riel, or less than a dollar) for the upkeep of the shrine. It’s hard to walk away smiling, but it’s a part of history I wasn’t ever taught in school. Chalk it up to a failing on the part of the British education system.

It’s not all historical horrors in Battambang, however. Hop on your trusty scooter (or ever-available tuk-tuk) and head either north or south from the city to visit its own ancient sites, Ek Phnom and Phnom Banan; we headed to the latter, nipping along smooth, tree-lined country lanes and returning the enthusiastic greetings from children on the roadside.

The path up to Phnom Banan starts as a serene, tree-canopied stone square with a small flight of steps – which quickly arches up into a aggressively steep incline of rough-hewn stairs bordered with dragon-head banisters. By the time you reach the top you’re heaving and cursing under your breath, but the small ruins is worth the climb. Sitting in a cloud of incense fumes, the temple has panoramic views of the countryside and multiple prayer sites; visitors don’t need to be hushed by caretakers as the tranquil atmosphere seems to create itself, with visitors stepping quietly over fallen statues and worn-smooth steps.

The main event of Battambang for us was the mountain containing the Killing Cave, Pkar Slar Cave and the mountaintop temple Phnom Sampov, as well as the Bat Cave – a huge scar in the side of the mountain, from which thousands upon thousands of bats pour out every evening at 5:30, more or less on the dot. Pull up a plastic chair, buy a cheap beer and marvel at superhero origin stories as the sky is filled with the chittering of crazily-flapping creatures.

We were too late for the Killing Cave in the end, though that didn’t stop the security guard amiably pointing us the way even an hour after closing time. It was starting to get dark and the power had already been switched off, so when we found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine famed for its horrific executions, in the dark, surrounded by piles of human skulls, we thought better of becoming a viral internet mystery and left rather than wander deeper underground with nothing more than a low-battery iPhone torch.

The rest of the evening was uneventful, save for a slightly-near-death motorcycle crash skinning both our left legs a little bit (sorry, respective parents, you told us so). Roundabouts in Asia can be perilous at best, so when an articulated truck cuts you off and sends you braking onto wet gravel, there’s only so much that can be done. Lesson learned and shared: big trucks are not your friend, avoid them before they try to make friends with you.

Bandaged and sore, but otherwise alive, we hobble our bags onto the waiting tuk-tuk for the bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I bagsy the front passenger seat and absolutely play up the injury for attention, but I suspect I’m just another backpacker with a leg-bandage now. Way to enforce the stereotype, me.

Angkor Wat’s Happening Next

The journey from Hanoi to Siem Reap is one-eighth the length of a Vietnamese sleeper bus ride. I’ve barely managed to get into my usual rhythm of quiet sleepless desperation and tablet fiddling before the captain announces our imminent arrival and I must repack my back for the umpteenth time.

Admin note for Cambodia – it’s easy to get a tourist visa to enter the country, but do yourself a favour and do it online in advance. You can absolutely fill out a form after getting off the plane, but you’ll be among hundreds of like-minded passengers and will have to queue up to do so. It’s the same price either way ($30) but it’s way easier to just smugly waltz through passport control.

After a brief moment of soul-chilling panic when my bag didn’t arrive (it had fallen off the bloody conveyor belt) we stepped out into the steam-room air of Siem Reap and got a taxi into town. A few notes on money and taxis in Cambodia: here they use their own currency (the Riep) as well as US Dollars, which is a bit confusing. Essentially, 4000KHR = $1, and anything less than a dollar is converted to KHR. For example, if a drink is $1.50, that’s either $1 + 2000KHR, or 6000KHR outright. It takes a bit of on-the-spot maths, which is why I almost always get it wrong, but the system does work.

On the taxi front: something I’ve noted since being in Cambodia is that people are far less likely to try and rip you off for journeys, or even overcharge you much in the first place. Instead, what people are more likely to do is try to pitch their services to you for the length of your stay, as a recurring driver. There’s still a certain amount of awkward shuffling of feet if you don’t fancy it, but it does at least come off as more honest than many tourist experiences. Our driver from the airport pitched us his brother’s tuk-tuk services for exploring Angkor Wat ($20 for one day, or $27 for sunset plus half the following day). Initially we declined the offer, but after looking up prices via our hostel we realised that he actually charged pretty reasonably, and we ended up booking him anyway.

Siem Reap is one of the most-visited spots in Cambodia, but outside of the capital Phnom Penh there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘large’ city; even as a small country with a population of 16 million everywhere has a relatively ‘small’ feel, even cities. The local night market in Siem Reap is a busy collection of traditional stores and smoking barbecues, offering the usual tourist memorabilia as well as locally-made fabrics and clothes.

The main draw of Siem Reap is possibly the most famous feature of Cambodia: the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat. The complex is vast. When tour guides assure you that you need a driver to visit, that’s not just a hard sell; Angkor is five times the size of Manhattan, spread over 153 square kilometres of dense jungle. Any like-minded children of films like The Jungle Book, Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider will spend the entire time gawping at the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm and eerie carvings of Bayon Temple.

Even if your heart is totally devoid of interest for history or architecture, each temple is swarmed with families of monkeys doing exactly as they please with little to no regard for the humans Instagramming them. One particularly mischievous chap managed to drop an entire tree branch within millimetres of a Korean family, followed by much elated screeching and defecating (on the monkey’s part).

There simply isn’t enough blog space (or, even charitably, reader concentration) to go into detail every facet of Angkor City; we visited eight temples and didn’t even scratch the surface. We left for the complex at 5am to do The Tourist Thing and await the sunrise over Angkor Wat itself, as many before and after have done. This is during the off-season, but even so expect a fair crowd of like-minded people watching/instagramming/vlogging the event. This particular dawn – perhaps luckily – was rather overcast, which did decrease the vibrancy of the sunrise somewhat but also made for a cooler, less crowded day.

Each temple has its own distinctive flavour. The central Angkor Wat building is a grand, palatial structure with its distinctive ‘pineapple’ towers and foreboding half-kilometre approaching road; following that, Bayon Temple is a looming stack of grey, weathered faces staring down at you through scrambled, Rubik’s cube-like stonework, dotted with monkeys scratching themselves amidst the historic structure.

Baphuon is off-limits to children, pregnant women and the elderly, primarily because the steps involved to reach its peak are far closer to climbing than walking; while I was there, a number of tourists turned back rather than take the stairs. Ta Prohm is one of the most recognisable structures, featuring in the first Tomb Raider film. Somehow more so than the other temples, it has been absolutely reclaimed by nature, with towering silk-cotton trees bursting through the tonnage of stonework and reaching into the canopy above.

Angkor Wat, being as famous as it is (and responsible for a huge percentage of Cambodian tourism), is likely the most expensive single thing you’ll do on a trip at $35 for a single-day pass – but you simply have to do it. It’s absolutely not the only thing to go to Cambodia for, but rather like going to Paris and skipping Notre Dame, you’d be missing out. I’d argue that it’s worth it even just to tell people you did.

It could be the sunstroke talking (hydrate, people) but after six or seven hours of exploring the ancient ruins the monkeys started looking at me weird and I needed to retire with some air-con. Having officially struck off something that *would* have been on my bucket list if I was organised enough to do things like write bucket lists, it was time to head on to the country’s second-biggest city, Battambang.

It’s the half-way point on the journey and there’s a nice lady selling spicy-fried grasshoppers. I instead went for a fish-cheese sandwich and will spend the rest of the journey wondering what the hell fish-cheese is.

Scaling Sapa’s Slopes

Spoiler alert: today’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as very little cardiovascular exercise was undertaken while visiting Sapa. Treks to the shrouded peak of Fanxipan can take between two and four days, and I suspect that one of us would have expired in the heat.

Even lacking said adventurous gumption, the landscape around Sapa is simply breathtaking. The bus from Hanoi teased us with glimpses of the sunset horizon high above us before the light disappeared, leaving us lurching and weaving precariously along invisible roads. The only thing we could know for certain was that the road was going up, at an alarming angle, and that the other drivers on the road were no more inclined to use their brakes than in the city.

Sapa is similar in many ways to Da Lat; it’s a cool, mountainous city which seems to leave a lot of familiar Vietnam behind. The buildings are bright and strangely European, and the city contains open parks and amphitheatres that couldn’t in any way fit into the larger cities’ dense urban landscapes. Dogs roam freely as in any other place in Vietnam, but the skinny short-haired whippets have now been replaced by huskies and samoyeds, who wouldn’t stand a chance in the country’s hotter lowlands.

Our first night, we wandered in search of food along the outside road of Sapa and were confronted by a pitch-black, yawning abyss. The city limits are right on the edge of the mountainside, and all we could say for certain at night was that there was land *somewhere* far below and far above us; Flat Earthers would have had a field day at this apparent edge of the world. Come daybreak, the view is no less astonishing.

Hundreds of metres below, the valley floor is carved into rows upon rows of rice fields, stepping from Sapa far down to an icy river. Yet more hundreds of metres above, the towering columns of Fanxipan vanish into cloud, almost blocking out the sun itself. There’s no such thing as a boring drive around the area, and no need for a booked tour – just rent yourself a scooter, pick a direction and try to remember to stop the bike before taking any of the hundreds of photos you’ll want to get.

The road northwest of Sapa winds lazily upwards to a break in the mountains, then immediately and alarmingly downwards into the next valley. Every turn brings you to an even better viewpoint, and it’s only when you look back that you realise how far you’ve come. Within minutes, the churning waterfall you saw far beneath you is now spraying the top of your head, the tiny stream below now a rushing whitewater.

The only tragedy of this experience came in the form of one solitary pothole ejecting my phone from the bike; upon realising this fact a few minutes later, I discovered via the Find My iPhone app that some questionable Samaritan had picked it up and was driving away into the distance. Despite extensive questioning in the area indicated by GPS, and after yet more extensive negotiating days later when said person finally got in touch with my emergency number, I never again saw my phone. Let today’s lesson be: don’t trust the bike’s front pockets, and/or just avoid the damn potholes.

The following day, we were fuelled with the urge to head quite the opposite direction, down into the villages and rice paddies below Sapa. The route is reasonably straightforward: pay 70,000 VND (about £2) at the toll gate, then follow the road downward to the valley floor. All straightforward in theory, except calling it a ‘road’ is charitable at best; while you’ll pass multiple hardworking teams of roadlayers that will undoubtedly have the path smooth as silk within a year or so, currently it’s a steep incline of jagged rocks and unpredictable gouges in the floor. The journey downwards wasn’t so much ‘driving’ as ‘not crashing’ while holding the brakes and balancing very carefully while gravity took you for a ride. The only source of confidence I had that it was even a road was the streams of possibly-suicidal drivers hurtling up and down with apparently no concern for their own wellbeing or that of their bikes.

Having survived the plummet, the green carpet of the valley base was a welcome oasis of wind-brushed grass and the occasional belch of water buffalo. The cold waters of the river demand at least a cursory paddling, particularly in the heat of the day; I had to go Full Tourist and acquire a long-sleeved shirt after the deceptive coolness of the previous day’s drive turned me a gentle shade of magenta, and even in the mountains the Vietnamese sun is nothing to take lightly.

And with that, our final stop in the country had to come to a close. Vietnam is an unquestionably stunning country, with far more to do than a month’s travel can sufficiently allow for, but we gave it our best.

For now, we head to Hanoi Airport (albeit one phone down), ready for the next adventure – to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The Heart and the Heat of Hanoi

Cát Bà was barely a speck on the rear horizon when the farmland gave way to suburbia, the vivid green suddenly overwritten by shades of city. The frequency with which the bus driver narrowly avoided vehicular homicide increased tenfold and the low thrub of the engine became punctuated by the flatulent honking of horns, our vehicle’s harsh roar answered by the plaintive beeping of the bikes swarming around us. We were in Hanoi.

I will commend Vietnam on the consistency of its roads. No matter how great or small the local population may be, crossing the road here is a matter of confidence and bloody-mindedness; you must be aware of the drivers around you while positively daring them to hit you as you play chicken.

In that regard, the beehive that is Hanoi’s streets was surprisingly familiar: admittedly, the city capital has a greater chance of exciting intervehicle encounters than somewhere as quiet as Mūi Né, but Hanoi somehow feels less bananas than its southern counterpart Hô Chí Minh. The roads here are a warren of overhead cables and underfoot salesmen, with stalls lining the pavements selling everything from bugs to Burberry as bikes laden with products weave precariously past you.

Roam Hanoi’s Old Quarter and get lost in its seemingly random network of side alleys and spontaneous markets. The time-stained façades of the area clash with the brilliant colours of Vietnamese markets and their sellers; you’ll be taken off-guard every time you turn a corner and come up against a spectacular old building, even though they seem to occur on every other street.

One of the city’s most famed sights is its Train Street – a narrow, gravely alley lined with shops and eateries, which must all be swept away twice a day to barely make room for a huge locomotive to barge past. Typically, when I arrive at 2pm I was informed the train wouldn’t be passing until 8 that evening, so make sure to check the train times before going; it only passes a few times a day, and it pairs nicely with a local beer and a folding table at the side of the tracks.

Suitably deflated by the absence of train, I headed further out from the Old Quarter into Bà Dinh, the political hub of Hanoi. This being an important part of the city, every building seems to have its own regiment of stern olive/red-clad military protection, with the exception of a few younger soldiers who eagerly, if somewhat incongruously, gave me the K-Pop ‘v’ sign as I passed by.

My target on this particular walk was a lake (in actuality, barely a pond) concealed behind rows of claustrophic alleyways in the middle of Dôi Cân. Huu Tiep Lake is a grimly elegant memorial of the American War – consisting of the untouched wreckage of a B-52 Bomber that crash-landed in 1972 and left to rust. I’d heard of this place first from a friend living in Hanoi – had I not, it’s hard to imagine I would have stumbled across it by chance.

True to any city worth its salt, Hanoi transforms after dark. During the day I found myself periodically swamped by survey-wielding schoolchildren practicing their English, or narrowly avoiding concussion by selfie sticks along the banks of Hô Hoán Kiêm Lake; at night, the main risks are renegade groups of dancing septuagenarians and falling into said lake while trying to get a photo. Lights illuminate Jade Island and the Turtle Tower out in the water, and the air carries incense and steaming phô from every corner of the city.

Having successfully dipped a toe into the urban scene of northern Vietnam, it was time to make a break for the final destination in the country – the giddying heights of Sapa, in the mountainous Ha Giang province.

The travel office agent warns us sombrely that the weather up there is much colder than here in Hanoi, and that we need to wrap up warm. Trying not to show our enthusiasm for such a change of climate, we solemnly reassure her that we’ll do just that before hauling our bags onto the waiting bus.

The WiFi doesn’t work but the scenery’s alright.

Cool For Cát Bà

As dawn slices across Ninh Binh, I’m taking up four whole seats to myself in the back of a mostly-empty bus nipping up the north-eastern coastline of Vietnam. The hostel had very generously sliced the small watermelon we’d procured from a roadside stall the previous day, and I was happily dribbling sticky juice onto my lap while marvelling at the driver’s skilful negligence of road safety.

For the first time since the Philippines, a ferry trip awaited to take us to Cát Bà, a large island just down the coast from Hà Long Bay. The driver shoulder-barged us past lines of salesmen and souvenir stalls, threw us onto the waiting boat and drove off again in a snaking cloud of dust, while the ferry’s crew expertly stored our bags in a large, makeshift pile. Slightly baptised with sea spray, I wedged myself onto the craft and churned across the Cát Bà strait.

Despite its separation from Vietnam’s mainland, Cát Bà is a haven for traveling folk, commonly featured as part of the Há Long Bay experience. As with any self-respecting South East Asian hotspot it offers its own range of tours and experiences, including boat tours of Ha Long Bay and the local Monkey Island, challenging jungle hikes and dramatic biking routes straight out of Jurassic Park.

It also offers some rare climbing opportunities, meaning I lost Meg for much of the stay. As befitting of the climbing community, we somehow found a small group of climbers out of Hong Kong to instantly befriend; apparently some peoples’ ideas of a relaxing weekend includes clinging for your life fifty feet up a jagged rock face, which I’m more than happy to exploit in the name of photography.

While Meg got her mountain-scaling exercise in, I exercised my right to motorised transport and Went For An Explore. Cát Bà, while the largest of the Hà Long islands, is traversable in under an hour via bike, and after two trips from the main town to the furthest ferry-port I still wasn’t tired of the view. After breaking away from the suburbs of Cát Bà town you rise gently to a break in the mountain range, before dropping to the bottom of the valley floor with towering green peaks either side of the road. As the grey ribbon continues onwards in an arrow-straight line, you feel increasingly small against the prehistoric scenery.

The island’s northernmost point is [FERRY PORT NAME?], next to which can be found a cafe and absolutely nothing else for miles. Across the bay, rowboats flying the Vietnamese flag bob vaguely between the area’s signature islets, unidentifiable animal life chittering in their green canopies. A small Buddhist shrine sits isolated on the opposite rocky shore, accessible only by a roughly-bound wooden bridge; I wandered tentatively across it expecting outrage or demands for money, but encountered absolutely nobody as I sat on the temple’s dock.

One surprise discovery (upon a quick search, actually quite well promoted but we neglected to check in advance) were the Hang Quân Y Hospital Caves, a secret medical installation from the American War. Crouching through into the cold, concrete maze is an eerie experience, and I can’t say I particularly envy anybody who had to be there in its prime. Water naturally seeps into the structure from the mountain above, and even when lit it’s full of dark, eerie corners. The directed route takes you through and above the hospital, into the cave network surrounding it and out through the other side of the secret mountain base. At 40,000VND (roughly £1.50-£2) for a ticket it’s well worth it for history or spy-movie nerds.

After three days of exploring, I eventually managed to goad Meg back down from the climbing wall with promises of snacks and sadly left my trusty (albeit ancient and perilously mirror-less) bike behind.

We’d procrastinated and redirected but it was finally time to venture back into metropolitan civilisation, into the manic heart of the country’s capital – Hanoi.

In Ninh Binh

Today’s adventure is one we only decided at the last minute, so was a bit of a gamble. Our original plan was to endure the 14-hour slog to Hanoi and consider our next plan of attack, as most travellers do when heading north of Hué.

Quite by accident, however, I came across a few like-minded blogs singing praises of Ninh Binh – a wonderfully-named, slightly-less-frequented stop a few hours south of Hanoi. Known otherwise as the ‘Ha Long Bay of the Land’ for its dramatic mountainous backdrop, it isn’t famed for its wild party atmosphere – which isn’t even remotely a problem for me.

As seems to be tradition, we rolled into the silent town at around four in the morning, aggressively sleep-deprived and confused. With one last tinnitus-inducing honk, the bus belched away into the night and we were left to fend for ourselves until the sun rose. By the time our hotel opened its doors we’d already napped by the side of the river, with bats flitting around overhead and cheery octogenarian joggers sashaying past us.

Ninh Binh proper is a nice enough but relatively bland town, with the usual amenities and industrial parks – when equipped with a scooter, however, your options are somewhat more varied. Most visitors stay in the Tam Côc district, a few minutes’ drive west of town and closer to the sightseeing action: proportionately more expensive, but a neck-achingly gorgeous scene to wake up to.

Our original plan was to stay in Ninh Binh for two nights before continuing northward, but that went out the window as soon as we took in the view. Sunscreen applied, bike refuelled and banana pancakes inhaled, we set out into the landscape.

The surrounding countryside has no shortage of experiences for anyone with a romantic or nomadic soul. If you struggle to take a decent photo of Ninh Binh you either need to get your camera or your eyes looked at – the nearby national parks are dense, sweeping jungles of plant and animal life, with brilliant-white storks flocking overhead and neon fish burbling downriver.

Visit Thung Nham national park during early morning or later afternoon to make the most of the thousands of birds flying to and from their mangrove nests, or take a tour along the river and through the maze of caves interconnecting Ninh Binh’s mountains; the Trang An boat tours are slightly less crowded than those from Tam Côc and take you past floating temples, through looming canyons and, for the film buffs, through the set of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.

Driver further afield to Cúc Phúóng National Park to really lose yourself in the wilderness. Part national park, part wildlife sanctuary, the rangers are committed to protecting the local species of monkey and turtles. A guide will walk you through enclosures of gibbons and golden-headed langurs, many of whom are caring for highly-protected babies. After taking the tour, I got the impression that they truly care for the animals at Cúc Phúóng, and encourage them back into the wilderness once their numbers are high enough.

As late afternoon draws in, the light falling below Ninh Binh’s mountains paints a truly stunning scene. Commit yourself to the short but demanding walk up the 500 steps of Hang Múa to Dragon Peak – a rough, rocky path with a 360-degree panorama of the spectacular landscape. Unsurprisingly popular with travellers around sunset, the more daring/death-defying adventurer will clamber over the jagged rock up to the stone dragon itself for unsurpassed views of Vietnam’s beautifully chaotic terrain.

It’s hard to drag ourselves away from Ninh Binh – harder still to think that we nearly skipped it entirely. I can’t recommend enough that travellers in Vietnam dedicate at least a few days to exploring its dramatic countryside and taking all the mountaintop #backpackerselfies your hearts desire.

Sadly, leave we must – and, once again, Hanoi will have to wait as we change route once again. Rather than following the much-driven path to Vietnam’s capital, we’re opting for the scenic route to Cat Ba island. We’ve got high expectations, but Ninh Binh is a tough act to follow.

A Bright Hué

We’re at the geographical halfway-point of Vietnam. Hué (pronounced ‘hwey’) is one of the country’s most historic cities, the capital of a number of ancient dynasties and the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the American/Vietnam war. Now a thriving metropolis, Hué’s landmarks include the Imperial Citadel, the vivid Trang Tien bridge and the Perfume River, with yet more ancient pagodas and royal structures dotting the cityscape.

Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours in which to see the city, and it was hot as holy hell while we were staying there, so choices were limited. We had to forego the Perfume River tour and – much to my disappointment as a photographer – didn’t have time to visit the legendary Thuy Thien abandoned water park, so instead settle for Hué’s most prominent landmark: the Imperial Citadel.

The Citadel is a vast stone compound in the centre of the city, the outline of which is clearly visible on any map. Comprised of multiple Russian doll-like layers of courtyards and arenas, it was the imperial seat of Vietnam for over a hundred years before being partially destroyed during the Battle of Hué. Restorations are ongoing even now, but much of the interior still lies in ruins; what remains is a beautiful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and tradition, with grand palatial promenades, perfumed Buddhist shrines and koi-filled ponds. Even in the enduring midday heat, it was impressive enough to hold my fascination while my brain gently fried.

Worrying that I was starting to actually emit a bacon-like musk, I retreated to the sanctuary of Hué’s air-conditioned restaurants along Hung Vuong road, in anticipation of the city’s glittering nighttime scene along the Perfume River. The Trang Tien bridge shimmers kaleidoscopically across the horizon as Hué’s traditional dragon-boats drift underneath, leaving behind the sounds of traditional music being performed live onboard.

The limitations of our stay prevent me from being able to explore Hué with any more detail, sadly; those of you with a more flexible travel time/ their own cross-country form of transport need to let me know what I missed.

For now, it’s yet another bloody bus and yet another gorgeous bloody drive. Next stop: Ninh Binh.

The Travelling Hôi Polloi of Hôi An

We don’t so much step off the bus as slough off it, dragging our bags, feet and willpower behind. The drive from Dà Lat is longer than the total door-to-door journey from my home in England to my job in Korea, and I can only marvel at the possibly amphetamine-fuelled stamina of our driver.

It’s dawn in Dà Nãng, and the bus terminal is deserted save for a few highly optimistic taxi motorbikes. 4am is the sort of time where you have to flip a coin to decide if there’s even any point in sleeping, but we decided to give it a go as there was yet another (blessedly shorter) bus ride to Hôi An itself. We hit up the nearest motel, pleasantly surprised at the cost of a bed – and discover upon a rude awakening shortly afterwards that they’d conveniently forgotten to mention that we were charged for a whole hour’s rest, rather than the full night. With just enough energy to curse our host and his forefathers, we gave up and poured ourselves onto the day’s first bus.

After a quick coma to recharge at our homestay, we ventured into Hôi An’s Old Town and were instantly thrown back in time. Once you block out the forest of selfie-sticks and the perpetual catwalk of socks-with-Birkenstocks on display, it’s hard not to be drawn into the weathered charm of the town.

Cobblestoned streets and razor-thin alleys weave around the harbourside in an intricate web that, after four days, I only just about started to familiarise myself with. Hôi An is not a large town by any means – you could walk from end to end of the main town area in about ten minutes – but what it lacks in metropolitan hustle it more than makes up for in old-world marketplace bustle. These were not roads designed for anything as modern as an automobile.

Daytime Hôi An is a historical scene, but at nightfall it is transformed into an iridescent sea of lanterns criss-crossing the streets and floating down its harbour. The bridges connecting the town’s multiple islands become dense with people making their way to and from any of the thousand restaurants and bars on offer, or stopping at the edge to watch illuminated boats drifting lazily downstream. Hang around until the later/earlier hours and you’ll finally have the streets to yourself, with the gentle sound of piped classical music drifting in and out of the Old Town’s labyrinthine nooks and crannies.

You could easily while away your whole time in the town, gorging on banh mi and Vietnamese coffee – but, as always seems to be the case, to get the most out of the area you have to get on a bike. We set our signs on the ruined holy city of My Son (pronounced ‘mee shun’), about an hour’s drive southwest of Hôi An. Of course, because we’d decided that this was our confirmed plan, this was the specific day that a monsoon storm hit central Vietnam.

Not ones to be deterred from a plan, however, we set out into the horizontal deluge with determination. It would be an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed the drive, but on the upside I gained a newfound appreciation for how it feels not to be slapped in the face by surprisingly sharp water for an hour. Helpfully, the rain abated just as soon as we parked the bike and could actually access an umbrella.

Had we more time to spare on our long-term trip, I could easily have settled into the groove of Hôi An. The perfect lazy day in the city for me would consist of the following:

– Breakfast at your hostel/homestay: we stayed at two different places, both of which had the most unbelievable breakfast options on request. I don’t even care how much it literally caters to Western tourists, the banana pancakes at both Chit Kem Homestay and Golden Bee were borderline narcotic in their appeal.

– Morning/afternoon: walk either with purpose or totally aimlessly through the Old Town – while I passed the same streets often while navigating the maze of Hôi An, I never took the same route twice. Explore the stomach-suckingly tight side alleys and see where they take you; I discovered a small lake, a well and a tree covered in bird cages on three separate wanders, and then immediately lost them when I tried to find them again. I suspect magic may be involved.

– Lunch: if I’ve learned one thing from traveling, it’s that you don’t have to spend much to get a good lunch in South East Asia; if anything, the best meals we’ve had have been the ones we barely spent anything on. Get yourself a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich (Banh Mi Queen or the Old Town markets) or try some Cao Lâu, a local speciality dish of noodles and pork.

– Afternoon: hide from the sun. Especially in the summer months, it gets deliriously hot and even the locals start to moan about the heat as much as this flaky Englishman.

– Evening: you don’t need TripAdvisor to find a fantastic eatery. Wherever you are in the town, you’ll find your new favourite restaurant every night. One of our favourites was Cafe 43 – one of the longest-running spots in town, we also took a cooking class there to learn three of our favourite dishes: papaya and prawn salad (one of the few salads I’d actually get excited about), lemongrass tofu and fried morning glory – possibly the simplest dish in Vietnamese cuisine, but one that I plan to cook with almost every meal I make at home from now on.

It may be a bit of a tourist hotspot, but you can‘t not visit Hôi An if you’re traveling Vietnam. Fans of the UK series Top Gear may recognise the streets where Clarkson, Hammond and May outfitted themselves in aesthetically violent tailored suits; the town is famous for its rapid and cheap tailoring services, and had I the spare funds I would absolutely have walked away with a $60 three-piece suit. Meg walked away with a custom-made dress (modelled after Katniss Everdeen’s wardrobe from the opening scene of The Hunger Games) while I proudly had my weathered old sandals repaired.

Our stay wasn’t without its tragedies, however. Whilst attempting a scenic cycle of the surrounding coconut forests, we had to skid to a halt next to a tiny, wailing kitten on the road that had clearly been hit by an inattentive motorist. Under the apparently amused scrutiny of the local cafe patrons, we scooped up the little thing and made an immediate beeline back to town to find a vet, but sadly his tiny heart gave out a few minutes later while bundled in my shirt in the bike basket. We gave him a bit of a funerary ceremony in a coconut thicket next to the fields, on a bed of Vietnamese peach blossom, and posthumously named him Marumi after the flower itself. It may have been a slightly ridiculous effort, but neither of us has the slightest willpower when it comes to animals, and it seemed the right thing to do.

Despite the rapid pace of life in every Vietnamese city, it’s hard to feel too rushed in Hôi An – but, as is always the case, we must indeed continue rushing northwards. We have just a short stop in Hue to look forward to on the road to Hanoi, and only a four-hour bus ride to do so.

I’ve folded myself into my seat, I’ve got my headphones in and I’m just about to finish this blog post. There’s a farmer outside struggling with an argumentative cow.

The Sleeper Buses of Vietnam

Today’s post will be a love/hate letter to a very specific part of travelling, especially in Vietnam.

I’m no stranger to adventuring and financial compromise; when backpacking, one can hardly expect to live a life of comfort throughout the entirety of the trip – indeed, if you are perfectly comfortable whilst moving through country after country, I would controversially posit that you somehow aren’t doing it properly.

Over the last month-and-a-bit of mostly-purposeful wandering, we’ve experienced a sliding scale of accommodation quality. Most of our bedrooms haven’t had monstrous insects scuttling along the walls; some have. Most rooms have been free of suspicious stains and/or smells; some haven’t.

Generally speaking, we’ve been able to sleep in most places thanks to/despite the quality of the room, knowing that we can always extend our stand or run for the hills the following morning. In the case of the latter, it’s usually not too long of a journey to reach the next town, at which point we once again roll the dice on how liveable the hostel will be.

The Philippines’ geography requires travellers to choose between boat and plane for most journeys; if the trip covers more than a single island, most people would simply opt for a short, cheap flight. We’d prefer not to waste money or burn ozone on flights if possible, however, so it’s trains and buses for us.

As of writing this post, I’ve yet to experience a train journey in Vietnam, though that may change in the next few days. What I have experienced, over the course of just five bus trips, is over 40 full hours of long-distance, usually overnight travel.

Sleeper buses are as notorious as they are practical. If you were to Google some second opinions before traveling, you might find yourself being a bit put off – such phrases as ‘coffins on wheels’ and ‘you couldn’t pay me to get on one’ seem to come up a lot – but 200,000VND (about £7) to cover the 14-hour slog from Hue to Hanoi is more than a little tempting.

We first encountered sleeper buses on the five-hour journey from Hô Chí Minh to Mūi Né, all those cities ago at the start of the Vietnamese leg of the trip. We were picked up from the Hanh Cafe travel agency near Bùi Viên at 8pm, thrown unceremoniously into the back of a van (no seats but a few thoughtful loose cushions) and driven right to the door of the bus – a large, coachlike vehicle with more curtains than the average bus. We threw our bags underneath, removed our shoes (as per custom) and prepared to find our seats.

‘Seat’, however, would be a questionable choice of word. Sleeper buses don’t so much have seats as narrow bunkbeds, crammed into the bus in a manner not entirely unlike a battery chicken farm. Closer to shelves than actual beds, you’ll end up feeling like a Toy Story extra scrambling back to your designated spot whenever the bus is about to set off again. A gentle aroma of ‘old socks’ permeates the air and, rather like being awake on a long-haul flight, you’re suddenly very conscious of the fact that there is *always* someone coughing at any point on the journey.

I’m not freakishly large for a human – 187cm, or a little over 6’ – but I will warn my fellow tall-ish people: you *will* spend a large portion of the journey with your knees somewhere around your nostrils, or bent into the foetal position. The hardier narcoleptics among you may manage to get a few winks at some point on the drive, but for me the ‘sleeper’ part of the bus was in name only.

Generally, the bus will stop every 2-3 hours to allow for leg-stretching and cigarette/bathroom breaks. This may either be at a designated stop, or on the hard shoulder of the motorway in the middle of the night – and applies to both the male and female passengers, with little other than a few metres of dark road either end of the bus in the way of gender-separation.

For the longer trips, you’ll get a ‘dinner rest’ sometime around nightfall at a roadside restaurant, giving you 20 minutes or so to get in, get fed and get back on the bus. The driver will usually disappear immediately into the ‘VIP’ bus driver section of the restaurant, leaving unfamiliar travellers (c’est moi) to wonder how the hell the diner system works. There will usually be a makeshift menu to point at on one side of the room, at which point you pay and run to the other side to grab your tray, inhale your pho and return quickly to your shelf on the bus.

I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories surrounding the bus industry in Vietnam, but so far haven’t encountered any especially bad conditions; I gather that conditions have improved drastically over the past few years, and if you book through a tourist travel agency you shouldn’t have too much trouble with dodgy drivers.

I would argue that taking a Vietnamese sleeper bus is one of those traveling experiences you just have to have, like ordering unidentifiable/inedible food or apologetically avoiding eye contact with a sex worker. It’s inarguably the cheapest way to traverse the country (with the possible exception of riding your own bike) and – touch wood – so far not a calamitous experience in my own travels.

You might not be particularly comfortable and there might be a couple of bugs on board (they were only very, very small cockroaches and that was only one bus, promise), but you’ll stagger off the other side with more than enough leftover money for all the coffee/alcohol you’ll need to get over the journey.

Guests at the Four Seasons need not pay any heed to this post.