Planes, Trains, Automobiles (and Boats): Travel through Vietnam

Vietnam has amazing variety in a small area. Jump on an hour-long flight, and you go from rainy north to sunny south. Grab the train, and you see the rolling countryside and glistening coastline. Take a boat, and you can get lost in islands jutting out of the sea. We got to see a few of them on our travels on various mechanized people movers (sadly, no cyclos) as we did our own travel through Vietnam.

Road trip through Vietnam’s countryside

Our favorite was our trip from Hue to Hoi An (motorbikes were a popular alternative – here is one that was highly recommended). Instead of a scenery-deprived bus, we chose a day-long trek. We left majestic Hue, replete with its temples and palace ruins, to head through the countryside. There, we saw farmers tending their crops, fuzzy ducklings bathing in the rice paddies, and oblivious buffalo sitting in the road.

Farmland near Hanoi

Farmland near Hanoi.

Only minutes later and we were slowly climbing the mountain, turn by sharp turn. Heat turned to cool, sun to cloud. Then, there it was: the Hai Van Overpass, a tree-clad summit replete with clouds flowing overhead. Dilapidated US Army forts lay nearby, ghostly reminders of a bygone era. “My father fought for the Americans,” our guide notes calmly, reminding us that the era is far from forgotten for the Vietnamese.

  • Hoi Van Overpass bayThe bay stretched out before us in the misty morning.
  • Hoi Van Overpass, VietnamThe windy road up the Hoi Van Overpass. Sadly, it was very fog-covered.
  • US mil bunker on Overpass, VietnamA US military bunker, which was an eerie reminder of the Vietnam war.
  • Stairs to Marble Mountain Temple, Da NangThe stairs to the high-altitude Marble Mountain Temple. Thankfully, there was also an elevator.
  • cave temple, VietnamOne cave in the mountain had a fully-built temple placed inside.
  • Beach in Da Nang, VietnamA few people enjoying the sun and beach.
  • Ship in Ha Long Bay, VietnamOur trusty boat, adorned with the Vietnamese flag.

Then on the descent, beaches stretched far and wide as we approached Da Nang. The area, known for its marble work and beautiful China Beach, has a fascinating Marble Mountain that we visited. Overlooking the city of Da Nang, the top of the Marble Mountain is a beautiful oasis high above the dusty streets, complete with caves, pagodas and lush greenery. On we went to the romantic Hoi An with its magnificent silk work, quaint streets and the best bahn mi in Vietnam.

Cruising through the dragon’s den

Vietnam’s waterways were just as interesting as its roads. To get a taste, we took a cruise through Ha Long Bay (“Descending Dragon”). Legend has it that dragons, charged with protecting a nascent Vietnam, descended upon the bay to stop an invading flotilla. The dragons called the islands forth to smash ships in their paths before departing in slumber, leaving the bay behind.

  • Ha Long Bay OverviewA view from above of Ha Long Bay.
  • Stone archA stone arch in Ha Long Bay.
  • Ha Long Bay Rowboats VietnamRowing majestically along through the floating village.
  • Fishing boat, floating village, Ha Long Bay.A fishing boat in the abandoned floating village.
  • Fishermen's kids in floating villageKids playing on their boats.
  • Caves in colorCaves with stone formations.

The area is a geographical marvel. Limestone islands (karsts) rise steeply from the sea and end in green-capped islands. They are filled with caves, hollowed out by rain and seawater, each with their own stalactites and stalagmites, like the famous Sung Sot, (“Surprising Cave”). Enterprising fishermen also call the bay their home, living in floating villages among the islands.

The overnight train

Not wanting to feel too comfortable, we decided to forego a 45-minute flight for a 12-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Hue. Part of the fun is that you see the country fly by, but much of the experience is in the journey itself. There are two options for overnight trains: the comfy “soft sleeper” (read: bed with mattress) or the minimalist “hard sleeper.” One word of advice: book the soft sleeper early if you value not having a sore butt.

Hanoi-Hue night train, Vietnam

The teeny tiny hard sleepers! They lived up to their name, and were so small we couldn’t sit up in them.

The ride was definitely an experience. The bunks, so packed that you can’t sit upright in one, were basically planks with a thin mattress. You and five of your closest friends try to sleep as you barrel down the tracks, trying to hold it all in to avoid going to the… rustic… bathroom. Ok, it’s not as bad as I’m making it sound, but it was different experience.

All in all, we loved our travels through the country. Often, the destination was only half the fun. The journey, be it by sea, track, or road, and the people we met along the way, was what really made the trip unforgettable.

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