I'd spent two weeks exploring Hanoi and the surrounding area, with trips to the Perfume Pagoda, Ha Long Bay and Sapa under my belt. While Vietnam had been the nation I was most excited to get to, a lot of my time in the north had been far from idyllic - while there were plenty of beautiful sights, transport had proved unpredictable and harassment from street sellers was at an all-time high for my trip.
As I waited in Hanoi for my overnight train to Hue I was hoping that as I headed south down the coast, I'd be able to get under the skin of the culture and history of Vietnam and edge closer to understanding the country and its people.
Hue: War, tiny tunnels and exploring an old capital
I caught an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, which was a pretty easy process. The concierge who booked it for me at the luxury hotel I'd treated myself to on my last night in the city recommended I put it off and leave the next day instead as there were no VIP or 1st class seats available - and these are the tickets tourists are usually sold. However, as I'd booked my accommodation in Hue already, I decided to just go for it, and was kind of dreading to see what my carriage would be like.
However, it turned out to be absolutely fine - while the seats didn't recline, it was clean enough, there was plenty of room, and there was even a trolley service selling traditional Vietnamese dumplings and coffee. Admittedly the language barrier was something of an issue, and when I needed to communicate with the railway staff or other passengers I very much had to turn to charades. When I arrived in Hue - there was no platform so we just jumped off onto the tracks - and one of the conductors even lugged my bag off the train and into a taxi for me.
Given that my objective for Vietnam was to gain an understanding of its history and culture, Hue - the national capital until 1945 - wasn't a bad place to start. Despite repeated bombings in the Vietnam War, some of the evidence of its former status survives, meaning there's plenty of monuments to explore, including the Royal Tombs and Hue Imperial City.
The Imperial City boasts plenty of old Vietnamese architecture and sheds a lot of light on the country's history. From when it was controlled by the Chinese from 111BC to when France took over in the late 19th century, and when it finally gained its independence in the fifties only to end up in the infamous war with America - known in Vietnam as The American War. There's a collection of royal seals from across the ages, and a series of fascinating black and white photos showing French dignitaries visiting at the turn of the century. Sadly, evidence of the war is clear in how much of the Imperial Palace is now missing due to heavy bombing by the US.
Hue itself has kind of a strange feel to it. Its old town is typical of a lot of Vietnam, with restaurants and their tiny plastic chairs lining the roads and local homes doubling as shops selling cigarettes and Tiger beer. The old town sits on the banks of the Perfume River, and a large, impressive bridge across the waterway leads to the more touristy part of town, which boasts a mixture of very luxurious hotels and backpacker hostels, as well bars for travellers and Western restaurants, making it clear Hue is these days very much on the tourist trail.
Strangely it was here I received the most questioning about being a solo backpacker, with one waitress who was serving me up a pan of sizzling Pho even going so far as to suggest I should travel with friends and family "so you have someone to talk to". Even though I'd only travelled a short way on my journey to the south, it seemed like the local people were friendlier and more helpful here - although admittedly I could have done without comments like those! The taxi and tuk-tuk drivers that populate the street corners, chatting and laughing, were present, but they seemed less aggressive, while people serving in shops and restaurants were positively friendly.
From Hue I took a tour into the DMZ - the demilitarised zone, which is on the former border between the North and the South of Vietnam. This took me to some of the most interesting locations I visited in the whole of Vietnam, including the entrance to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the Vietnamese used during the war, a war museum and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, as well as a number of US military bases.
There are plenty of museums dedicated to The American War dotted across Vietnam - and as a Western tourist, the first time you visit one can be quite shocking. A lot of the pictures and exhibits are captioned in a way to emphasise the bravery and sacrifice of the Vietnamese troops, while noting that the American troops were cowardly and on an immoral mission. Underlining the many atrocities perpetuated by them, it makes it easy to understand the upset and anger of the Vietnamese people at the time.
That said, you can't help but also feel incredibly sad for all the young US troops who fell into the barbaric Vietnamese traps, or who were forced to follow Vietnamese soldiers down into the cramped tunnels only to meet their deaths. It's safe to say that the Vietnam War and its history is extremely complex and very emotional for anyone learning about it, whatever their nationality, and visitors to these museums will spend time reflecting on the horror and evils of war in general.
However, the country appears forward-looking now, with any Vietnamese person you speak to happy that the nation is now united as one big family again, and pleased that its relations with the West are good. The country is communist, but some of the rules have been relaxed, meaning that while the Vietnamese people cannot talk to foreigners about politics, they're allowed to discuss it amongst themselves. This means that as a visitor, it is a huge taboo to ask any local people about politics - they won't answer and may even get quite upset or offended at your questioning.
The start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail - now the Ho Chi Minh Highway - is marked by a bridge. The trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia was unknown to the Americans at the time of the war and was used to provide help to Vietnamese troops in the south resisting US operations, and to help those in the communist north fighting against the Americans who were trying to turn them capitalist.
The most iconic stop on our trip was the Vinh Moc tunnels - one of Vietnam's many underground tunnel systems where people lived for years during the war to avoid air strikes and soldiers on the ground. There are tunnels like this all over the country - the most famous being the Chi Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, which I planned to visit later in my trip. The Vinh Moc tunnels, while wider and taller than those comprising the Chi Chi underground network, were still very claustrophobic, and a lot of visitors chose to use the exits on the upper levels before we squeezed still deeper into the labyrinth.
It was probably the first time in my life I'd understood claustrophobia: the tunnels are carved out of stone and even with my diminutive height I had to bend down to walk through them. They're so narrow that you're completely unable to squeeze past anyone in front or behind you, meaning that you are completely stuck - and even if you could get past them you'd have no chance of finding your way out of the labyrinth alone.
The idea of living down there is absolutely unthinkable, but locals in the area were left with no other option. There are a number of tunnel systems open to the public in Vietnam, but there are others where the location is classified - just in case another conflict should arise.
Hai Van Pass: Biking in the footsteps of Jeremy Clarkson
Some of the best views of Vietnam can only be gained by motorbiking down the coast, and if you're going to do this at any point during you time in the country, the Hai Van Pass offers the most spectacular panoramas and exhilarating roads. In fact, Top Gear fans may recall a special in which Jeremy Clarkson and co biked this route - and the tours in the area are not shy of mentioning this.
Whether you're going to hire your own bike or ride pillion with a guide depends on your competency and confidence on the vehicles. However, I can't emphasise enough how incredibly dangerous Vietnam's roads are for motorcyclists. You might be proficient on a bike back home, but the monstrous honking lorries and thousands of other speeding motorbikes winding around you make it difficult for anyone who has not grown up driving on those roads to stay safe.
It is not unusual to see tourists with horrendous injuries and scars from biking, with many horror stories shared along your way, and many travellers hurt so badly they have to fly home. What's more, an average of 33 people per day die on the roads of Vietnam as a result of motorbike accidents. The possibility of being hurt - or worse - is very real if you choose to rent your own bike.
After my small motorbike accident back on Ko Tao in Thailand, I decided that while I wanted to bike down a significant amount of the coast, I also didn't want to seriously injure myself in the process and so opted to hire a guide and ride pillion along the Hai Van Pass, over Da Nang's famous Dragon Bridge and into Hoi An. This turned out to be my favourite day in Vietnam, and one of the favourites of my whole trip.
Along the way my guide took me to a fishing village, and Elephant Waterfalls (the name of many different touristy waterfalls in Vietnam to be honest) where I had a peaceful swim in a gorgeous natural pool with the clearest water I've ever seen. We also stopped for lunch at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, which meant more noodles, veggies and tofu for me. Another highlight was Da Nang's iconic Marble Mountains, on the top of which you will find a number of pagodas and big Buddhas, as well as an incredible Tomb Raider-esque cave.
The views as we soared over the Hai Van Pass were incredible, with low-laying clouds lingering at the top of the grey-brown mountains, and natural lakes set amid miles of greenery. The road's sharp bends made for a thrilling ride, and with the motorway stretching out for miles ahead of us, I was in travel heaven.
Hoi An: Pretty lanterns, a beautiful old town and a new dress
After a day on the bike however, I was happy to hop off in Hoi An for four days. I'd heard numerous travellers in Southeast Asia talk about how Hoi An was their favourite place on their trip, but I didn't realise I'd like it so much I'd end up extending my four days to a week.
My time in Hoi An was spent wandering around the old town and biking to the beach, and every night I'd head into the old town to watch the colourful lanterns float down the river over a nice glass of wine. The architecture in this area is absolutely stunning, and dotted with vibrant lanterns, and once the sun goes down the atmosphere amps up. There are plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy, while there are also a number of clubs just outside of town.
Every traveller to Hoi An should have some clothes made while they're there. Thanks to the numerous tailoring shops lining the streets, you'll be hard pressed to get clothes of such high quality made for you anywhere else in the world for such low prices - and of course you can haggle them down too. From evening gowns and suits to daywear, whatever you order will fit you like a glove, and can be turned round in just one day. I chose a lavender prom dress which will be perfect come wedding season, and it made me realise that none of my clothes have ever fit my properly before!
Walking back to my hostel after my dress fitting, I was approached by a woman who was pointing at my eyebrows and shaking her head. After almost five months of travelling, I had to admit that my eyebrows did need attending to, and so she put me on the back of her bicycle and took me back to her house. This led to probably the most unique salon experience of my life, as I was instructed to lie on her bed while four elderly women prodded me and my eyebrows were very painfully shaped.
During my time in Hoi An I also took a bicycle tour of a nearby island, which was very enjoyable and a great learning experience when it comes to Vietnamese culture. After a short boat ride, we disembarked on an island and headed to a local house where the tradition of respecting ancestors was explained to us. In traditional Vietnamese houses, a type of alter sits at the heart of the house dedicated to the households' ancestors, who are consulted on decisions from baby naming to marriage blessings using the communication methods of prayer and the tossing of a coin.
We also visited the place where they make the traditional Vietnamese basket boats, which are used for fishing and - legend has it - came into existence so locals could avoid the "boat tax" imposed on them by the French by claiming "IT'S JUST A BASKET!". Other highlights of the tour included visiting women who had spent their lives weaving sleeping mats that Vietnamese people lie on at night, and having the process of crafting with mother of pearl explained to us.
While in Hoi An I also took a sunrise tour of the Hindu temple My Son. The other parts of Asia I had visited had been heavily Buddhist, but as I travelled south, the Hindu presence, as well as the Catholic one, increased. The highlight for me was probably the Sanskrit tablet that no-one can translate!
As sad as I was to leave idyllic Hoi An, with its gorgeous lantern-filled streets and vibrant nightlife, after a week it was time to move on. Hoi An had been a relatively relaxing part of my trip - I'd started every day with a swim in my hostel's pool, followed by a lot of meandering in lovely surroundings, but it was nearly my birthday, and I'd decided to treat myself with a truly relaxing break in the middle of nowhere.
Qui Nhon: To the beach for my birthday!
I was headed to Qui Nhon - a coastal city - by train. Once I arrived in the city, a car from the hostel met me and I was driven outside the town to a tiny fishing village where women cooked pho on the streets for their families and any passersby who cared to join. Meanwhile, kids ran around, trying out their English on visitors. This was likely the most authentic Vietnamese village I visited, and - without question - the best hostel.
The hostel was located on a beach, the dorms boasted double beds and all the visitors ate together in the fantastic bar every night before impromptu live music and card games inevitably happened. The British guys who owned the hostel worked with the local community - teaching the kids English, meaning there was plenty of integration with the locals, who would come and hang out in the bar too. It was the perfect place to spend a solo birthday: relaxing on the beach and swimming in the clear sea before heading back to the bar for a few drinks and some delicious food.
Qui Nhon itself is a pretty big city, with quite a lot of Catholic influence. Its centre is filled with wide highways, a well-groomed beach and plenty of bars - with many of them on the beach. It's not necessarily a firm favourite among tourists, although there are plenty of shops and hotels geared to this target audience, so it was pretty refreshing to walk around relatively freely, without being sold to too much!
It was in Qui Nhon that one of the most memorable moments of my whole trip happened. One day some Dutch girls and I went on a wander around the village to find some local food. After an incredible meal of pho we headed back to the hostel only to stumble upon a house of incredibly drunk middle-aged Vietnamese people all doing karaoke and dancing in their front room. They offered us some cans of Tiger so we joined in, and word quickly spread, and before we knew it half the village had gathered around to watch us. It turns out karaoke isn't easy in Vietnamese if you don't know the language, and it was clear they were enjoying watching us mess it up.
The best part of my trip?
The time I spent travelling down the coast of Vietnam was probably the most idyllic part of my trip. After a relatively difficult time in the north, this section of my travels was smooth sailing: people were friendly, the views were incredible and getting from place to place became something to look forward to rather than a chore. I also felt like I'd learnt a lot about the country's history - both ancient and more recent - and was getting closer to understanding the culture. At the same time, I'd allowed myself to relax and unpack a little: staying a whole week in Hoi An had done me a world of good, particularly because there was a little more access to Western food there.
In Hoi An, I'd extended my visa so that I could spend a total of seven weeks exploring this incredible country. I was to use my extra time to continue travelling south: all the way to the Mekong Delta. I wanted to travel down the coast while also taking some time to explore the highlands a little, do a bit of trekking and I definitely wanted to get back on a motorbike!