After spending a month in Vietnam in 2017, I fell in love with the country so when the opportunity to travel there again in 2019 presented itself, I jumped at the chance.
In 2017 I travelled during January, so I was excited to be going this time in August, September and October to experience different parts of the country in different seasons.
I travelled this time for 10 and a half weeks total to Vietnam, with 2 weeks each in Myanmar and Cambodia in between.
Read on below to find out where I went and what I did. The whole Vietnamese portion of the trip is divided into two parts and Myanmar and Cambodia are separate posts.
PART ONE:HANOI TO HUE
I flew from Sydney to HCMC and stayed the night, before heading up to Danang where I set up camp for 2 weeks, as I had heard that it was a big digital nomad hotspot. I did this to check out the digital nomad scene and scope out potential English Teaching jobs. I still wasn’t sure how I wanted to go about this digital nomad thing, if I wanted to become a resident and get an English Teaching job locally, whether I wanted to work online, if I would enjoy the whole expat scene or even if I would enjoy living in Vietnam full time. It became a kind of a reconnaissance mission. I found that although Danang had great seafood and lovely people, it wasn’t for me as a place to live for any great length of time, so after 2 weeks I packed my bag and headed for Hanoi. From Hanoi, I headed out to Myanmar for 2 weeks as a tourist. (See blog post here)
Flying back in from Yangon we were getting towards the end of August and Hanoi was hot, hot, hot! Steamy, humid and sticky, the heat felt very oppressive and I think I preferred Hanoi in it’s 2017 January gloom.
However, whatever the weather, I do love this city. From the bustling narrow streets of the historic old quarter, to the many museums dotted over town, the French Quarter, Lakes, Temples, Pagodas and street vendors, Hanoi is dripping in History and charm.
This was now my third visit to Hanoi and I stayed in the touristy Old Quarter at the well respected, but very reasonably priced Hanoi Gatsby Hotel. I highly recommend this Hotel and this area if you are in Hanoi for sightseeing, however if you are going to be living in Hanoi full time, you may want to consider an area which is a bit quieter and with less sensory overload.
I decided for me personally, although I do love this city, that the Winter is just too cold and the Summer is just unbearably hot. With such extreme temperature differences Hanoi was also off the list as a long term place to settle, so I packed up my bags once more and moved on.
I caught an early morning bus from Hanoi to Mai Chau. Although it didn’t look far on the map and actually wasn’t a great distance, it took 4 and a half hours to reach my destination, due to road and traffic conditions.
Mai Chau is located about 160km Southwest of Hanoi in the Hoa Binh province. The area is stunningly beautiful with vividly green rice fields and large karst mountains as their backdrop. It is home to different ethnic minorities, including the ‘Black Thai’ population, who are famous for their weaving and their stilt houses.
If you are interested in having more of a cultural immersion experience, it is possible to stay overnight with one of the local Black Thai families. For more information click on the link here. https://www.maichaufamilyhomestay.com
Although I loved the area and the locals were very friendly, I decided it was a great place to go to for rest and relaxation, but not for work. It was too isolated and too small to have all the infrastructure and facilities an expat would need long term, so again I packed my bag and headed to Phong Nha, an area famous for its caves.
Now, for this part of my journey I couldn’t find anything at all on the net about travel between Mai Chau and Phong Nha. Geographically, they were not too far apart and it would have been great to just be able to go from one town to the other. I was told however (on Tripadvisor) that this was not possible and that I would have to backtrack through Hanoi and then go to Phong Nha from there. I couldn’t find any information to contradict this either. Buggar.
Anyway I did what I was told was correct, however I want you to know that just because this information is not on the net, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It does.
When on the ground in Mai Chau, I discovered that there is indeed a bus to Phong Nha, as well as to many other places. I would have saved myself so much time and money, had I known, so I really hope you find this advice helpful if you are thinking of doing this or a similar route. You do not have to backtrack via Hanoi. Do not make my mistake.
However, you may have to embrace a different travel style, especially if you are a person who loves to plan all their travel arrangements in advance. It will require you to be a little flexible with times and dates because you won’t be able to book until you are on the ground in Mai Chau. I suggest that if you have an idea of how long you’d like to stay in the area, that you book your bus to your next destination as soon as you arrive.
Anyway, after arriving in Hanoi again unnecessarily, it was actually cheaper for me to fly with Bamboo Airways to Dong Hoi (Airport for Phong Nha) than to take a much longer and slower bus or train. In Dong Hoi, I was picked up via taxi and driven to the Nguyen Shack Eco Resort in Phong Nha. https://www.nguyenshack.com/phongnha/ecoresort/
I can thoroughly recommend this as a place to stay, to connect with others and to feel part of a conscious community. They have organized caving expeditions with local tour companies and are a wealth of local information and knowledge. There are actually a number of Nguyen Shacks dotted around the country and I had the pleasure of staying in the HCMC one later on in my trip. I can’t say enough good things about either ‘shack’ I stayed at. Accommodations are basic but comfortable and spartanly furnished, the food at both shacks (available at an additional price) is of a high standard and tastes absolutely amazing, and the sense of community, although very different in both shacks, felt very genuine and inclusive which I really appreciated as a solo traveller.
Run by a Candanian and Vietnamese women, the shacks focus on authentic experiences, sustainability and customer service. They began in the Mekong Delta and have since branched out. You can read more about them here.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Phong Nha, however I soon learnt that the beginning of September is not the right time of year to visit this area of Vietnam. My first 2 days there were clear and I’m glad I made the most of them, exploring the area and visiting a few caves, however the rains then came. They were torrential and never ending. For safety reasons the caves were closed as a typhoon was forecast. I made the decision to leave the area and go to the nearest city of Dong Hoi and I’m so glad I did. If I had left it a day longer I would have been stranded. Phong Nha completely flooded and roads became rivers and waterways. The mainstreet of the village I was in the day before now had water up to the rooflines of houses and canoes were being used to navigate the ‘roads’.
I thanked my intuition for getting me out but really felt for everyone who was now isolated and stranded with no way of knowing how long they would be there.
In Dong Hoi there was rather a subdued mood. We still had rain there but patchy and not torrential and we all knew how lucky we were. Feeling grateful, I made my way into a warm, dry cafe and struck up a conversation with a lovely lady from the U.S. who had been living in Taiwan for the past 20 years. (Shout out to Lauren)
We ended up both loving Dong Hoi. It was so mellow and laid back and the people were very friendly. We spent the next couple of days travelling around together and then I pushed on to Hue to escape the rain, bidding farewell to my new friend and keeping Dong Hoi in the back of my mind as a potential place to come back to. It had a beautiful beach, great seafood and a really relaxed vibe. Tick, tick, tick.