From the 29th of December 2014 to the 13th of January, 2015

After dusk, as we approached Dien Bien Phu and the mini-bus emptied, I informed the driver that I was going to the bus station serving Hanoi. The mini-bus stopped in a depot where a car was waiting for me. The driver dropped me off 500 meters from there, exactly where the last passengers disembarked. When a discovered how many people welcomed me, I understood that he was actually working for the bus company. Being out of cash, an employee guided me to the nearest distributor but by card was refused. Another employee drove me (on the back of his motorbike) to another distributor, a few kilometers away. I was finally ready for the 10 hours sleeper bus journey. How fare would they go for an extra passenger !

At dawn, motorbikes loaded with fruits and vegetables were already roaming the capital city. It seemed as if the driving code didn't apply to the two-wheelers crossing in all directions. Bicycles, motorcycles and trailers were loaded with methodicity and knowledge. As in several cities of South America, each street was dedicated to the sale of a specific item. The shoes street, the silk street, the lantern street, the aluminum items street, etc. It was quite amusing to sit on the mini-stool of a street stand and watch the chaos. For the new-year, a stage was installed near Hoan Kiem Lake. There has been a countdown, but the transition to the new year did not lead to any excitement for the local people. No hugs, no champagne, time to go to bed...


On Cat Ba Island, I followed a lady which accosted me at the exit of the bus. To my surprise, she offered me a real hotel room with stunning views over the sea and the sunset for 6 dollars a night. What else could I hope for ? A beautiful white sandy beach perhaps? If the village of Cat Ba is a good base for exploring the national park and especially the beautiful Lan Ha Bay, don't expect to go sunbathing on a beach.

If the 5 hours hike through the National Park was a good opportunity to be in a beautiful green vegetation, I was a bit disappointed not to see any animal. However, the kayaking trip in the Lan Ha Bay was fascinating ! Huge rock formations are the remains of a limestone layer eroded by the rain. We navigated between the different islands and discovered lagoons encircled by hug rock walls, accessible (or not) by tunnels depending on the tide. The Lan Ha Bay is the extension of the popular Halong Bay, but has the great advantage of being far less crowded. Here, no engine noise, no tourists, just birdsong and monkeys cries. It was just magical !


In Ninh Binh, located a little south of Hanoi, I rented a scooter to visit various temples, of which the Bich Dong Pagoda, built in a cave overlooking the rice fields. Accompanied by a French couple, we found a boat (with a rawer) away from the extra touristy Tam Coc, for a ride on canal between the limestone mountains and navigating through some caves.

I then reached the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, known for its magnificent caves. Unfortunately the weather wasn't the best and rain lulls were pretty brief. With a British couple, we hired a boat in order to discover the beautiful Phung Nha cave. After about twenty minutes of navigation on the river, the engine was turned off. We entered the cave and rowed from cavern to cavern, admiring the beautiful stalactites and columns surrounding the river path.

I continued my journey to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam during the XIX and part of the XX century. Within the citadel walls, a second rampart surrounded by a pool protects the royal palace and the Purple Forbidden City, the place where the emperor and his family used to live. Unfortunately, many of the buildings were destroyed by the French and then by the Americans during the various wars. The roof of the reading pavilion which was spared by the bombing is beautifully decorated with broken pieces of porcelain mosaics. After the visit of the citadel, I rented a bicycle and rode to the Tu Duc Tomb, a few kilometers away. This site served as a second home to the Tu Duc Emperor and was also the place where his wives and concubines were living. He built his own tomb, but was ultimately buried elsewhere in a secret place. However, Queen Lê Thien Anh (his first wife) and the Emperor Kien Phuc (his nephew) were buried here.


I then continued my way south to Hoi An, whose port was once one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Located on the sea routes of the silk trade, Europeans, Americans and Asians ships were loading their holds with treasures of the East. Today, we can admire architecture influenced by the Japanese and Chinese who used to spend several months of the year in Hoi An, as well as houses dating from the French colonization. Despite being touristic, it was very pleasant to stroll through the old town, visiting old buildings or walking along the river. In the evening, the multicolored silk lanterns decorating the streets reflected in the water of the Thun Bon.

About fifty kilometers away, My Son Sanctuary was a religious Indu center during the Champa kingdom in the IV and XIII centuries. The majority of temples were dedicated to Hindu divinities, especially Shiva, regarded as the founder and protector of the Champa dynasty. The site was heavily bombed during the war. This leaves only a few temples from the original 68 structures. This visit gave me glimpse of Angkorian temples, where vegetation has taken possession of temples.


At 5am, a moto-taxi drove me to another neighborhood of the city where I got transferred to his car. I learned that my bus was leaving at 6:30 from Danang, an hour drive from Hoi An (the travel agency had confirmed me that the bus was leaving from Hoi An). At the Danang bus station, I was told that the bus was scheduled to leave at 8:30am. During this long bus journey, we stopped for lunch and crossed the Laos border. At 9:30pm, the driver said we arrived in Pakse, my destination. He gives me my bag I disembarked (I was the only passenger going to Pakse). A Lao man informed me that I was in Seno, more than 200 kilometers north of my destination. It was dark, there was nobody around, and I had no KIP for a bus ticket. Ready to sleep on a bench for the night, the Lao man handed me a bus ticket he just bought for me. On the one hand I was feeling angry and humiliated by the Vietnamese driver and on the other hand I felt very touched by the generosity of this man. At 10pm, a little anxious about reaching my destination in the middle of the night, I boarded the bus and fell asleep. A few kilometers before arriving, the driver stopped and slept for a few hours. At 5 am, the engine started again and it was a very smooth arrival in Pakse after a 25 hours bus journey. Afterwards, when I looked at my passport, I realized we crossed another border further north than the one we were supposed to. The Vietnamese driver never intended to drop me off in Pakse and he did not even have the courage to tell me, not even when he "kicked me off" in this dusty bus stand at night.

I don't like to make comparisons between countries, but after Laos, the contrast was quite obvious. Vietnamese know how to take advantage of every type of tourist. Holidayers had their own driver and guide at a tourist price while backpackers were guided in groups of 50 people at unbeatable prices. For the more adventurous traveler, it was of course possible to rent or buy a scooter, but once people understand they have nothing to earn from you, they don't bother giving you the information you want. Despite the beautiful places I visited, I had the feeling of being part of a photo safari. You get off the bus, take your pictures, spent one night at the hotel, back on a bus to the next stop and start again. The contact with the local population was limited to people with an interest in tourism.

Click here to read the following story about my journey in southern Laos.

See the album "Vietnam - January 2015"