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My route North - The Northern section

Updated: Jan 31

I should probably add, I've already done a visa run and another will be due soon enough!  From Phong Nha I had a bit of a puzzle as to where exactly I would head to for my next rest.  There really wasn't much to choose from, I knew the Northern coast wasn't great and I had a general direction of Hanoi. I'd heard bad things about Vinh (big, dirty, industrial city) and it wasn't quite far enough for a days ride. I settled on Thai Hoa, from here it would be a short ride to Ninh Binh.

Thai Hoa was a real nothing much town but I took the DT15 in along the river which was a sweet little road.  I checked into to some random Nha Nghi (Guest House).  There was a young owner who spoke decent English, turns out he taught English to the local kids for a free at a nearby café a few evenings a week. 

Well that was my night sorted!  I was suddenly surrounded by around 12 kids from 6-17, all gifting polystyrene boxes of food at me.  I read a few story books to them and chatted with the older kids.  In the morning I was woken quite early by the owner “ Ross we go for breakfast now”, off I was carted to a local restaurant for breakfast where around 10 of the parents from the night before were waiting with various gifts – bags of fruit, drinks, rice cakes etc.  A couple of the older kids were there to translate and to carry on the lesson!  One of the parents invited me for lunch and insisted I must stay with them at their house that night – so I did.  What an incredible couple of days.  I left in the morning with enough supplies to feed a football team and the sweetest letter from one of the students!

I was determined not to suffer the QL1 (highway 1 – coast road) so I carried on the Ho Chi Mind Road, a very short 3.5 hour ride to Ninh Binh.  I stayed out near the pagoda for the first few days.  I’m not really into to temples and the like but I have to say it was pretty impressive, landscaped gardens in a Japanese style and tastefully floodlit at night – definitely worth a visit.

I then moved into Tam Coc, not far from the Marina which I regretted a little as I was now in backpacker central but I had a nice room and pool at Tam Coc bungalows.  Hang Mua – Wow what a climb, I’d met someone who’d done it the day before and told me to take 2 extra T-Shirts… (1 for the top and a fresh 1 for the way down), she was right I was absolutely dripping in sweat.  Some of the steps are very tall and it was hella hot, but incredible views.  I did the boat trip at Trang An, which is an area I wish I stayed instead on Tam Coc, far more relaxing and peaceful. 

I drove around for a few days even visiting Ninh Binh city (don’t bother!).  A fabulous place, sure touristy in parts but as an area, well worth spending some time here and exploring, quiet, large roads, endless paths and country trails through rice paddies.  They call it the Ha Long Bay on land and its an accurate phrase! I probably spent 8 days or so before deciding the Capital was next!

Hanoi!  The ride there was grim – short but felt much longer, busy, dirty, beep, beep, beep!!! Yet as I crossed over the huge Nhat Tan bridge there was a real feeling of "I've arrived". I was conscious I needed another visa run so I booked an apartment on Air BnB for a month on the west side of Tay Ho (West Lake).  Beautiful French style villa, full length balcony, little kitchen and a huge bright airy room, a very local area with only a few expats around and devoid of tourists.......hmmm Hanoi is alright! 

It was like a little Saigon, still as crazy and alive just on a smaller scale.  I spent a week driving around getting my bearings, visiting the Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem), Train street, the Mausoleum and then generally just living for a while.  It really wasn’t me but it was convenient and having been out in the sticks for a while, the western comforts, KFC for example were welcome.

I’d met a girl, made some friends and was becoming comfortable in Hanoi but I wasn't done travelling yet - I hadn't even seen the North! We had a visa run together and on our return, I said I would go do the Ha Giang loop before coming back to Hanoi.  I did return to Hanoi but not for long and ultimately to say I’d be moving to Ha Giang!

I went back via the North East, through Sapa and Lao Cai and from my new base in Ha Giang made it out to Cao Bang, Ban Gioc, down to Lang Som and along the coast to Ha Long, finishing in Cat Ba for a good rest. Where I incidentally met an awesome bunch of humans who were thinking of doing the Ha Giang Loop! Here comes round 5!!!!

I don't consider the East and West as part of my route North and have had endless trips since being in Ha Giang that I'll probably cover in a separate post. Whilst Ha Giang is the absolute jewel in the crown of Vietnam, both East and West of Northern Vietnam are incredible, similar to Ha Giang just not quite as epic but still significantly better than most places south of Hanoi!


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