Today we slept in, wanting to make this an easy, relaxed last day in Zim. After a leisurely breakfast, we decided to head out one more time to the Lookout Cafe, to enjoy once more the breathtaking view over the canyon below the Victoria falls. We also wanted to check out the little curio stalls selling wooden and soap stone carved animals. We were still looking for a nice small soap stone zebra to take home.
Some of the animals we were desperately trying to spot in the National Parks also frequent the Lookout Café, in close proximity to humans. They have become so accustomed to it that Chris was convinced the Meerkat was actually posing for food.
After a nice cappuccino, we browsed the stalls but there was no nice zebra to be found. Despite the best efforts of the curios sellers to convince us that we actually wanted other animals, we just did not know it. Freedom, Trust, Tomato and Trump (their elf selected seller names …) tried their best but we declined. We walked back to town to the Elephant Village Shopping Center where there were many more selling stalls than at the falls. Sure and behold, Esther found quite a few small soap stone zebras that we liked and Esther was hard in bargaining her price. We know what we paid in Matopos for the elephants and the hippo, so there was no way we were paying three times the price here. We paid exactly the same. With few tourists around it was a buyers’ market.
After dodging further sellers we earned ourselves a quiet rest and relaxation in one of the small spas. A manicure and pedicure later we headed back to our car for a dip in our small but cold pool at Nguni lodge and spent a few hours relaxing.
The day was not over and at 3 PM we went to the old and established Victoria Falls hotel, overlooking the entire Vic falls bridge with a wonderful view of the bridge and gorge below.
They serve a very English tradition there called High Tea. For a surprisingly small fee (15 USD as of 2023, while a room for a night starts at 740 USD) they serve tea or coffee and an etagere of typical English cucumber and chicken mayo sandwiches, small cakes and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Yummy! Nice way to end our vacation.
Back at the lodge we had one more highlight before us. A dinner cruise on the Zambesi River at sunset. We were picked up and driven to the jetty along with some other tourists. That was the most of all tourists we have encountered here so far.
Boarding the tow decles ship, w set out into the setting sun, enjoying cocktails and a number of playful hippos grazing and playing in the river. We were amazed at how many there were. Mostly submerged but popping out their heads frequently. Despite looking so playful and harmless, those animals are the second biggest source of human deaths in Africa, after mosquitoes. They are very territorial and don‘t tolerate any infraction into their space.
We had a nice three course meal on board and another last spectacularly red African sunset. We will miss those back home!
On the drive back to the lodge we nearly ran into a small herd of elephants walking the streets in the middle of town. No wonder people have walls and electric fencing around their property.
Happily tucked in, all we have to do tomorrow is to pack up our things, hoping that the Vic Falls Marathon that‘s happening on Sunday does not disturb our journey to the airport and then head out for our flight home.
This concludes our journey blog. It felt those two weeks were packed with events and we made many interesting new friends. Maybe not the last time in Zim, definitively not the last time in Africa!
Today we set out early from Bulawayo as we were looking at a full day of driving five hours from Bulawayo to Hwange. There we planned to have a lunch time break and meet up with Oliver, from our Hwange Horseback Safaris team and then another three hours until Vic Falls.
We rented a little 2 WD Toyota Axios Hybrid, which we named Cookie (tough cookie, remember?). Cookie was great. It already had 259.000 km‘s on its frame when we got here and we were putting another 1.800 kms on it during our stay. Super low fuel consumption, hybrid drive not fully functioning, but as reliable as Ford for Alaska (which is actually a Toyota Corolla, aged 23 years itself). Cokie did not disappoint. Despite us missing a small pot hole some times, and having to carry us across some dirt roads that were made for 4 WD‘s, cookie got us safely from Vic falls and all the way back without a popped tyre or a break down. We considered ourselves lucky considering that we must have passed several thousand potholes during our 1.800 km drive, some truly fearsome with us standing at a halt in front of the gaping hole and discussing how to navigate around it at all.
The worst part we knew was from Bulawayo to Hwange where we met Oliver for Lunch. Average speed was 40 km/h, alternating from 100 km/h stretches to walking speed in a matter of a minute in order to navigate the next round of potholes.
We met Oliver to give him some of our leftover USD bills. The one Dollar notes, in particular, are worth their money, considering the fate of any newly introduced Zimbabwean currency which is plagued by inflation. In 2022 the government even tried the introductions of gold coins and this year they’ve started a gold-backed crypto currency.
The Dollar remains the only stable currency in circulation. It has recently been officially recognized as a legal form of payment. Interestingly, we haven’t come across any Zimbabwean currency during our stay, except for older bills sold as souvenirs since you can become a Billionair with just one bill.
Due to the scarcity of small denominations, one Dollar notes are highly valued for daily transactions. Without smaller change available, it’s common to receive packets of goods worth one Dollar or, for instance, you buy two (large) avocados instead of just one. Occasionally, in Supermarkets South African Rand coins are given as change. However, there is one aspect we had encountered before in Myanmar already: the bills must be in pristine condition without any markings, ink spots, or cracks. In such cases, they are rejected, as happened to us with a five Dollar bill fixed with Scotch tape. On one occasion, a waiter even followed us to our room to exchange a ten Dollar bill with a minor ink stain on the edge for a different one. It seemed a bit absurd to us, considering the one Dollar bills we received in return had considerably more wear and tear. Consequently, handing Oliver 70 of our flawless one Dollar notes brought him great joy.
After a nice break up of the journey with a delicious lunch at the Hwange Safari lodge, overlooking the water hole complete with elephants and impalas, we started on the last stretch of our journey back to Vic Falls. In Hwange town we were once more shocked how the Zim government is selling off their natural resources and the money only lining a few pockets.
At Hwange very close to the national park border, the government sold the mining rights to the Chinese and let them dig up the most ugly and large coal mine of all of Zimbabwe. Open top mining means that a huge section of the land is just being dug up by large caterpillars and black coal dust is coating the entire area, not only the immediate surroundings of the mine, but also carried by wind into the national park. No animals can be seen in those polluted areas. It‘s so sad that the sellout to the Chinese happens in such large style and only benefits a few already super rich people.
Lithium mines, gold mines, coal mines, copper mines so many mining rights sold to the Chinese and once the reserves are exhausted they just leave a gaping hole in the ground and leave back machinery that is super old and not functioning anymore.
A Chinese miner told Chris that they had discovered old mines left behind by German gold prospectors. He was deeply impressed by the engineering skills demonstrated by the Germans back then.
On the way to Vic falls many ugly mines can be seen, chimneys blowing out black smoke and one wonders where this is leading Zimbabwe to.
One thing that we did notice to be very different, and a good thing, is that nowadays every man walking on the road side seems to be wearing clothing with reflector stripes. This is certainly an improvement from the last time we were in Africa.
Cookie got us safely back to Vic falls and we check into our lovely Nguni Lodge again.
Today we headed out again to the great monument as we had only seen one of three areas of the entire complex. We explored the valley complex with was mostly in rubble walls, here is believed that the kings lower family lived. At the back of the property was a traditional village set up for the subjects and villagers. Looks like you can book a place to stay overnight here, but the thing is, we haven’t seen any tourists at all while we’ve been here. So when we bought some of their usual soapstone carvings of animals, they were really thrilled.
The highlight came when we visited the great enclosure. A circular structure of enormous dimensions, most impressive because of it‘s thick walls made entirely of granite stones without the use of any mortar. A great eleven meter high outer wall encloses an oval shaped space. The wall is six meters thick at the base and four meters on top and very impressive. The stones are meticulously arranged in symmetrical fashion thousands of years ago. It has four relatively small entries which could easily be defended. There are inner circles, where it was believed the king resided in peace times and where business was conducted. Artefacts from as far as China and Western Africa were found there, indicating that this place must have been on a key trading route at one point in time.
Nearly claustrophobic is the narrow pasage between the outer wall and an inner wall, barely letting a person through in single file. Most impressive also was the conical tower at the end of the passage.
A solid circular structure made entirely of granite bricks, several meters diameter on the base and tapering to two meters at the top. It was originally believed to house the crown jewels and people tried to find ways to get inside, even digging a tunnel underneath it. To no avail, the tower is solid, no hollow space at all. Luckily it was never completely disassembled and could be restored.
It‘s exact purpose is still the subject of speculation today. Was it for religious purposes? Was it a circumcision center? Was it just a symbol of power? Nobody really knows as no written account of it could be found anywhere.
After having spent a leasurely morning wandering the premises, we made tracks as the drive to Bulawayo was to take 4 hrs and we definitively did not want to arrive in the dark.
Driving back was uneventful from a scenic perspective. A lot of bushland used for grazing cattle and goats. Many little villages on the road side and frequent police stops. Those were always a bit of a gamble. Some would just wave you through, others were stopping us, asking for a valid drivers license (No one requested Chris’ international driving license that he had obtained specifically for this trip). We had also the case that we were asked to show spare tyre and fire extinguisher or if we had some water. We were expecting one of those controls to ask for money, but albeit some of the officers drew out the conversation clearly looking for some signs from us if we were willing to hand over something, only one of the asked outright if we had brought something for him from Germany. We denied and he let us go. We were told, that special during Christmas time, drivers coming from South Africa where asked what their Christmas gift was. What seemed to be working better for us, is if we identified ourselves as tourists straight away, raving about Zimbabwe and how nice the people here were. None of the officers seemed to want to tarnish the rosy reputation that we pretended to have from their country and people.
We made it to Bulawayo around three PM and checked into the very traditional Bulawayo Club Hotel. This is an old Gentlemen‘s club, so typical for the British colonial empire or the London Clubs, behind a massive security gate in the bustling center of teh town.
For members only. Here the affluent white male population were having their ‚serious conversations‘, drinks, games and simply hang out together undisturbed by their wives or colored peole. Nowadays a very snobbish attitude and considered outright racist, at that time, all bigger cities had such clubs during colonial rule.
The president‘s room had all the exhibits of former South African Rugby teams, old hunting trophies, countless pictures of queen Elizabeth and all the floor were waxed to the max with bean wax, just like in olden times. The second floor housed 15 guest rooms and lounges, originally for overnight guests by invitation only. The first floor housed the library, further salons and the presidents rooms. It felt like a living museum – specially the century old lift by Waygood & Otis.
Heading out directly after check in across town by foot, we soon discovered that this is not done by white people usually or people who had some money. We did not care and felt safe walking around town even though people stared at us. Bulawayo is the second largest town after Harare in Zimbabwe.
It is a bustling hub of commerce, street vendors everywhere and many old colonial buildings still there albeit somewhat run down now. But here’s another interesting detail: When Chris parked the car, a woman approached him with an electronic device and informed him that his car still had an unpaid parking ticket from two(!) years ago, amounting to over $2. While he was momentarily surprised, he quickly pointed out that it was a rental car and he couldn’t have been responsible for the ticket.
We walked to the natural history museum as it is supposed to be one of the best in southern Africa. It proved to be true. Manz displays with stuffed animals in glass windows were displayed in life size. They also host the second largest ever stuffed elephant in the museum, weighing originally 5.5 tons and being 4.5 meters high on his withers. His tusks alone weighed 45 kg each.
We wandered through displays of stuffed animals, countless stuffed birds, live snakes, minerals and the hall of kings. Zim history in speed mode, but well worth visiting if you are in town. Ambling back to the Bulawayo Club through dilapidated parks that certainly have seen better days, made us realize how vibrant and rich the country once was and that since then, corruption has caused so much damage to the country. It‘s sad to see but unfortunately very wide spread in all of Africa. It‘s the norm rather than an exception.
Back at the hotel, we decided to enjoy a light dinner there in the colonial atmosphere and were not disappointed. The benefit of having a hotel in a central location was great for us to walk the streets on foot. The disadvantage showed at night, when two trees with a thousand starlings emitted a huge sound cloud intermingled with constant shouts from Zimbabweans shouting for customers to fill their mini busses. This did not make for a quiet night but it was to be expected.
We woke up and regretted that we really had to leave this wonderful place in the Matobos Hills already after two nights. One last beautiful, serene sunrise, soaking in the surrounding views in awe and then packing to head out to drive for 4 hrs to another must see place in Zimbabwe – the great Zimbabwe Monument.
Leaving the parking lot at the Big Rock Cave Lodge, we saw fresh leopard spoor. Those elusive animals are very hard to spot but that they are there can be heard and seen from their tracks.
Driving a rather bumpy dirt track back to tha main road and to Bulawayo, we loked for a gas station to fill up. There are only two types of fuel sold here, Diesel and Blend. Blend being the only petrol and not always available. We were lucky and found a gas station that was functioning and where we filled up.
Driving from Bulawayo to the Great Zimbabwe Monument led us on a country road that was of much better quality than the road from Dete to Bulawayo. Less pot holes. Neverthelesss we saw two nasty looking accidents which must have been collisions when overtaking.
The truck drivers are actually quite sensible with their big over height trucks, it‘s the bus drivers that drive crazy fast on those roads. Big overland coaches are the main means of transport for the normal population, some with huge wobbly loking loads strapped to their roofs, some quite new looking air conditioned coaches, both race equally fast, commanding not only their lane but also the middle section of the road. Truly hair rising when such a bullet train bus comes speeding towards you at full tilt.
Despite elections in August we saw very little posters or bilboards calling to vote. We saw only a few showing the curent president promoting tourism or business growth and a call to vote, no advertisements of any opposition candidate.
What we heard is that the 2023 elections are predecided anyway and that it‘s a mock election, where there is no doubt about the outcome. And that means again no change for Zimbabwe going forward. The ultra rich will continue to exploit the country as they were doing for years. It‘s really sad how a country which such potential, a relatively highly educated population (The Universties and private schools in Zimbabwe are among the best in Africa) and richness in minerals and coal is floundering and deteriorating because only a few of the ruling parties and their family members are lining their pockets without giving much back to the country. Every toll both they charge $2 US for cars, yet the majority of even the major roads are in really bad shape, ridled with pot holes, the size of an entire car.
They upped the national park fees drastically this year on short notice for foreigners, but the amenities and upkeep are for the most part minimal and poaching is rife, even involving tipping by NP staff as they often haven‘t been paid for months. Truly sad, but the people here are quite placid and just accept the system as it has become after the white farmers had been evicted. They called that the big land grab that happened between 1980 and 1990 when farms belonging to whilte farmers were seized by force and subdivided and given to black Zimbabweans. Because of that 2/3 of the white population left the country and with them the farming knowledge. Zimbabwe what was known then as the bread basket of Southern Africa, has now to rely on imported grain as those new owners often did not know how to work the land or were given to small patches and subsequently more and more of the arable land became bushland again.
After a 4,5 hr drive we arrived at the Great Zimbabwe Monument. After checking into our very quaint, old charm colonial hotel, the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, where British royals had already stayed, we walked rom there to the ruins on foot.
The ruins are a cluster of three complexes dating as far back as the 9th century. At that time the king of the local tribes , what is now Shona land, was believed to reside at this place, which is now in ruins. There is the Hill complex, a fortress built on top of a granite hill, overlooking the surroundings on all sides for miles.
Making our way to the base of the rock, we encountered the only other visitors here, a local school class. In no time, we were surrounded by a group of children, wanting to take a picture with them and us. Like in other places where white people with long and blond hair are usually not seen, it is the kids who are not shy and we were happy to oblige, feeling as if we are the tourist attraction.
After picture time, we climbed up those 300 meters to the hill top. Narrow passageways must have made it impossible for intruders to get into the fortress unseen. It is believed that this complex served as a fortress in war times and as a religious place in peace times. We sat down to enjoy the evening light and the maginificent view from up top. Not a single soul or anoter tourist could be seen. It felt we had the place entirely to ourselves. What a privilege!
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a nice sun downer from our porch.
This is the most amazing location we ever slept in and we really did some awesome travels before. We are in awe. Feeling so privileged to sleep in this beautiful place called Big Cave Camp.
Perched high on a rocky outcrop, the Big Cave Camp Lodge is literally built into the rock. The main lodge back walls are all rocks, the little huts are built to blend in with the nature and each having a fantastic view from their balconies.
We fell in love with this place at first sight. We only booked two nights there but wished it to be longer.
There is only one other guest at the lodge, a very interesting Indian guy from London, born in Kenya and now working in Hamburg. An Executive at a bank in Hamburg that just took six months off traveling southern Africa by a personlized 4WD all by himself. Chris and he got on splendidly, both exchanging camera tips, drone experiences and smoking the occasional cigarette together. Maybe a connection that will have a future.
We can’t rave enough of this place so close to heaven. Little Hyrax are hoppling about everywhere. Those are little marmot like animals that look and smell a bit line guinea pigs.
Magnificent views everywhere, attention to every detail and lodge and surroundings to die for. We had a super quiet night in our little stone cabin. Much warmer than in Miombo. After a magnificent sunset the evening before, we had an equally stunning sun rise the next morning.
We just sat in awe on our little balcony and admired the view. Reddish rocks stone boulders on top of each other, in between green trees and yellow grass landscapes. It just looks so pretty.
We had booked Shepperd, a park guide for a walk on foot to track the endangered rhinos for which the park is famous for. He picked us up at 9 am and we drive with the Hillux Safari Car into Matobos national park. There after a little drive we approached the Rhodes Grave site. Rather than going up to the grave site immediately, we decided to go for our rhino tracking first as the ranger told us that they had seen a mother and baby rhino in the area yesterday.
Carefully on foot we walked through very tall grass closely following the ranger on foot through the bush for about 15 minutes. The we stopped in our tracks. A grey huge hump was visible in front of us. Not moving. Just a big grey mass, nearly rock like. We crept slowly closer until the rhino lifted its head and we saw some movement besides it. A little rhino calf was standing right next to his momma and looked at us with shy eyes.
The guide motioned us closer and we kept inching closer to where he stood. He made clicking noises, which the momma seems to recognize and relaxed. Rhinos don’t see very well so they rely on their hearing a lot to identify sounds of comfort or danger. The ranger knew this rhino from her days as a young and those clicking noises seemed to be a sign of mutual recognition. She let us come as close as 5 meters to her and her 4 months old calf.
Chris and Esther were in awe to be so close to this peaceful and magnificent animal. So sad that it has to be protected by rangers around the clock as poachers are always a big risk to rhinos. Ours was a square lipped white rhino, eating savannah grass, others in the park are black rhino who have a pointed lip and feed on bushes.
After having looked at momma and baby rhino for a while we made our way back seeing another rhino back in the tall grass. This one turned around and snorted at us. Even the rangers advised to retreat and said that that bull is not friendly. We back tracked our steps and turned into another direction. After another two minutes’ walk we saw a fourth rhino shape. This time lying down resting. It was a young bull, friend of the momma, being chased away by the larger and older bull we saw earlier. He recognized the clicking sound of the ranger too and let us come close to see him in all his glory.
He got up and just stared at us with friendly curiosity. He looked much more relaxed that the other guy. We never thought to come as close to a wild rhino as we have done in Matobos today. It will be one of the most memorable moments of this trip.
After the rhino walk on foot, we hiked up Cecil Rhodes grave site.
From atop you can see for miles around and enjoy the magnificent views all around. Rhodes was a divisive figure in Zimbabwe’s history. Revered by some as he was extending the British colonial empire adding then called Matabeleland (afterwards Rhodesia) to the empire, and hated by locals as an aggressor violently fighting to subdue the tribes of this land to British rule. He claimed large sections of Matobos as his private land and decreed that he wanted to be buried on top of the hill that was a scared place for the Matabele. To this day Zimbabweans have mixed feelings about Cecil James Rhodes. We hiked up for the view and were rewarded with sweeping vistas of this wonderfully unique landscape.
After a nice picknick lunch on Maleme dam, we made our way to Nswatugi Cave, one of the caves with the best-preserved cave paintings in Southern Africa. 9000+ years old. We hiked up a steep, rocky hill to get there in foot and to be rewarded with the most amazing animal paintings high up in a cave.
Preserved against rain fall and water pouring down, reddish figures were painted onto the cave wall thousands of years ago. Especially the giraffe paintings were exquisite. It was heartwarming to see that so far everyone has respected the sacred place and left it unspoiled.
No graffiti, no name scratching into the walls, not etching of letters into the rock. We sincerely hope that this stays that way. The cave is open to everyone and not guarded or protected in any way.
This concluded our day in Matobos with Shepperd, our good guide, and by 3 PM we were back at the lodge for a quick dip in the icy cold pool atop our rock. The rest of the day and evening we spent in good company while admiring the surroundings dreading to have to leave the next day. To get the most out of this amazing place, Chris and the new acquaintance from Hamburg decided to meet again after moonset at 1:30 am to take pictures of the milky way – unspoiled, since there is almost no light polution at Matobo.
Today is a driving day. Peta and Oliver had warned us that the road from Dete to Bulawayo is riddled with pot holes and that we should count at least 5 hrs for 200 km’s. That’s 40km/h on average! And bay were they right. It took us 5,5 hrs in total for 200 kms.
We experienced only one country with worse roads than that stretch from Dete to Bulawayo and that’s Madagascar. Driving on a perfectly normal road for about 10 kms then all of a sudden we had to slow down to a crawl. We must have navigated thousands of potholes on the way, some small but deep, others going across the entire street width.
Some so deep that we could not navigate our little 2 WD car through but needed to use the opposite lane for entire stretches. Luckily traffic was light. Sometimes we needed to go off the shoulder. Chris did a fantastic job driving and we only hit 2 or 3 smaller pot holes. Nothing big to damage the car or have a flat tire.
It was nevertheless intensely exhausting to constantly look out for those holes as frequently shadows obscured them to our view. Even large oncoming buses and trucks swerved around them and so we had to watch out for the oncoming traffic as well.
Some of the stretches of the road was hundreds of meters of just pot hole after pot hole, then a stretch of ok road followed by the next stretch of holes. At 40 KM/H average you can imagine the speed at which we went. Exhausted but happy to have it made with intact tires to Bulawayo, we decided to fill up there, as gas is not always readily available in Zimbabwe.
Oliver was telling us that three things must align in order for us to fill up gas: 1. Gas must actually be there at the station, 2. The station must be open, which is often very irregular and 3. Power needs to be functioning to pump the gas. More often than not, those 3 things do not align … so take gas while you can is the motto of the day.
Our lodge at Matobo National Park, Big Cave Lodge, was supposed to be just 45 min outside Bulawayo and the road was supposed to be better, which is actually was.
Happy to be arriving soon, we were looking forward to a rest and sunset in the hills of Matobo. Google maps again showed us a pin but no exact path to get there. No internet or phone reception either. Great. Déjà -vu for us. We saw one gate that was closed that stated Big Cave Camp.
It was unlocked saying please lock gate after drive through and right next to it another sign stated Big Rock Camp 1,2 km ahead. We were puzzled. We had booked Big Cave Lodge, but the confirmation email came from Big Cave Camp. What should we do? We decided to give this first road a try, and after about 1 km, of small rutted and rocky road, that got rockier by the minute we thought that this must have been the back way and reversed to head back to the main road to try our luck at the other entrance.
Low and behold, the road was a bit better for our little 2 WD car but when we arrived at the camp it was literally the camp site with round huts only. Self-catering and not really what we had booked. Luckily two guys where there who told us we should have continued driving on the first road until we came to the lodge parking lot.
They showed us a ‘short cut’ that led us down a steep rocky slope that made our little car screech in protest. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a small parking lot and honked the horn to make the lodge staff aware that we had arrived.
Sure enough, a 4WD Toyota Hillux came down a rocky slope and collected our bags and us to drive us up to the lodge on a rocky outcrop of Matobo Hills.
And then we arrived in heaven…
We are having our last day of our Safari riding time and got Eddie and Nonie for a last wonderful ride through the bush.
Peta keeps all the horses in excellent shape and so we were able to canter and trot a lot on the sandy roads. Sometimes with rather abrupt stops when she saw something in the bushes. Today we spotted a few elephants but not much else.
The riding across bush was the adventure anyway. It was a long 6 hours ride with a short break in the middle. Many of the natural water holes had dried up already and so we did not see much game.
Lunch was served at the lodge and then we headed out for sour last game drive into the park with sundowners there. Taking a different route from last time, we had a lovely encounter with a little Steenbok whom posed for us.
Some far away giraffes until we arrived at our sundowner spot, having drinks in the middle of a heard of Zebras and Wildebeests.
The young ones jumping about full of energy. And Esther made a new friend.
Enjoying our last evening by beautiful sunset, we were thinking how fast we forgot on his vacation that we had a life back in Germany.
Today was another full horse riding day with lunch at a Safari Lodge across the Vlei (a marshy depression in which water collects in the wet season). With Esther riding her new best buddy horse Eddie and Chris riding Nonie, both now with comfy English saddles, we headed out into the grass and bushland adjacent to the NP.
We criss crossed the forrest and savannah grass lands with spotting a nice heard of impala, that let us ride through them. We saw a sable antelope, majestic with a jet black and white glossy coat and impressive saber like horns.
Another thing Peta & Oliver are doing with their volonteers is to sweep the area for snares. Snares are typically wire nooses set in the bush with the intent of strangling an animal. Poachers generally set snares to capture edible game meat. While poaching is highly illegal in Zimbabwe, with perpetrators facing penalties of up to nine years in prison, the setting of snares continues and poses massive risks to the local ecosystem. Our guide Dube (His family name stands for Zebra) found one of these snares that are really difficult to spot, specially from horseback.
We saw Elephants again, but they moved away from us, to fast to really see them. At noon we crossed the grassy Vlei where we had had sundowners before and were greeted by our volunteers and Oliver to take the horses off us for a nice lunch at the Hwange Safari Lodge. Under a pair of umbrellas, we enjoyed our sandwich lunch overlooking the water hole watching zebras, antelopes and strange looking birds come and go. Those were the largest flying bird weighing up to 31 kg and are called Keri Buster.
Nature is fascinating.
Heading back on a different route we needed another 3 hrs to get back to stables, seeing the occasional elephant butt, but as the bush was dense, they were difficult to spot. Giraffes have eluded us completely.
Back at the lodge we watched another herd of elephants using the waterhole and this time one of the little ones came quite close to our hut before being called back by Mom.
After yet another delicious dinner, we decided to crack open our Baobab fruit for dessert. It souded hollow and when we cracked it open, it looked like many tiny marsh mallow or baiser pieces inside.
Sucking them, they have somewhat sour taste not unpleasant but not much meat on it at all. We decided to leave the rest to the Vervet monkey in the camp.
Those are funny creatures that visited us every day, curious if we left and door open to sneak in and look for food. They were thrilled to get the baobab fruit and it was gone in no time.
We had brought a full suitcase of second hand childrens clothes to Zimbabwe collected in Germany from Chris’ colleague to give to the Dete community and orphanage. That morning we planned to hand them all over and Oliver took us from house to house where there were little kids and each family could pick something out, they liked or could use. Far away from any store those kid’s clothes are much sought after and they will have a second and third life clothing many kids to come here in Africa.
We were shown tiny but tidy houses. Each with a meticulously maintained vegetable garden, raked sand floors and improvised fencing using anything from old wire, plastic bottles, tires or grain bags for fencing material.
The community only had one little school building, a small church and no grocery store. For all errands or food not grown locally, someone needs to go to Hwange, about an hour drive away. Doctor visits, bank, petrol, grocery, pharmacy, everything was a long drive away.
We handed out our kid’s clothes much faster than we thought. And so we had time to make a stop at the African Painted Dog center.
The African wild dogs are nearly extinct. There is only a few hundred left and most of the packs are collared to track and identify them. The fact that we had seen 4 of those dogs without a collar let the researchers suspect that a larger pack had divided into two. The word got out that Chris had taken pictures and so they asked whether we would share them which of course we did.
After the dog center, we headed back to Miombo for a yummy lunch before saddling up the horses again for an afternoon ride. We were hoping the lions had moved on. Wishful thinking. After about an hour ride with again no game in sight, Peta stopped cold in her tracks, her mount had ears pricked and was reluctant to move forward. Peta took a picture of the road in front and on the enlarged screen she saw two lions on the road that had just gotten up and several more crossing the road. We saw a distant outline but the horses definitively knew something was up. We waited until all of the had crossed the sand road before turning in the opposite direction to make a wide circle around them. Everyone was a bit on edge as no one was keen on a direct encounter with an entire pride of lions.
The rest of the afternoon ride we did not see a single animal except a few birds. We came awfully close to a lion encounter and nobody minded getting back without one. We washed down our accumulated stress level with white wine and beer at a beautiful sundowner at a water hole, not minding that we did not see any animals there as that evening nine big elephant bulls visited our waterhole by our tree cabin.
One bigger than the other. But luckily, they kept their distance.
Today we decided to do a game driving day into Hwange Nationalpark. We set out early as it was a half hour drive to the main gates. Bundled up against the chill we ride in an open top jeep armed with binoculars and good camera lenses.
Driving into Hwange we at first did not see that many animals at all. Not until further into the park, when we approached our first rest area. There were very few cars driving in Hwange and every time we passed one, the two drivers exchanged information on the game they had seen. After one of such encounter, we were told to be on the lookout for lions. We nearly missed them.
A mating pair was lying down in the tall grass under a bush.
Had the male lion not twitched an ear, we would have not seen them. The even got up and slowly walked parallel to the road in about 50 meters distance to us. Majestic animals those lions.
At our first water hole, we were treated to a wonderful variety of animals. Herds of grazing Zebra, mares with foals, a hippo sunning itself on an island, and in the distance a big herd of elephants was approaching from the forest. We sat for 20 minutes just enjoying the scenery unfold in front of us.
Heading out to the next water hole, Kennedy 2, we were told that this is one that the elephants love in particular as it offered not only water but also ‘spa’ treatments for the elephants. We drove up to a platform and had lunch on top, looking out over a wonderful water hole where Elephants drank, mod bathed and threw sand on each other clearly enjoying every minute of it.
We watched tiny little elephant babies play in the mud, not knowing what to do with their tiny trunks, big bulls mock threatening each other for better water access and protective moms shielding their young from the rough young males.
We could have sat here for a much longer time. We have never seen so many elephants in one place. It must have been 80 to 100 of them.
On we went to Ngweshla our last stop where supposedly rare antelopes gather. And indeed, we saw Waterbuck, Red Roan Antelope, Kudu, and even Elan, which is very shy and rare to see. We felt elated and happy that we saw so many different kinds on one day only not knowing that our highlight was still to come. Having spent most of our day driving south in a leisurely fashion, we had to make tracks getting back to the gate by 6 PM before the park closes. Slowed down by some giraffes munching on acacia trees in the setting sun, we simply had to stop and watch those graceful animals.
Realizing how late it was and that the sun was setting fast, we started to drive back rather fast … and had to stop cold in our tracks. Two black dots came marching towards us at a leisurely pace on the sand road. We had to wait. As the dots came closer, we realized that those were the mating lion pair we had seen earlier and that they were heading straight for us. And we were in an open top Jeep. Chris and Esther sitting in the first row.
Our adrenalin level shot right up. We were told to keep still, not move and just watch. As the two lions came closer, they became bigger and we could see their powerful muscles moving under their fur. They walked right by our car, barely 50 cm away from us. Chris could have reached out and petted one of them, but of course did not dare to. One jump and the lions would have gotten easily into the car. We breathed a sigh of relief when they passed ignoring us. For a split second, the piercing eyes of the male lion seem to think about stopping but decided otherwise. What an adventure! And definitively the highlight of the day.
After the way was clear, we had to race to the gate now and arrived with barely a minute to spare before closure.
That evening we had a Brai, a traditional South African BBQ. Grilled meat over a wood fire that tasted delicious and showed everyone the pictures of the day.
We woke up the next morning with our noses freezing. It’s really cold in Hwange in the morning. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Zimbabwe was -18°C at a waterhole nearby. It wasn’t that cold for us, but we still had to drag ourselves out of our warm, cozy beds and fight our way through the mosquito net. Thankfully, it’s June and the mosquitoes aren’t out yet (or at least we haven’t seen or heard them). Lions are dangerous. But they don’t hold a candle to mosquitoes. Around the world, around 22 people die from lion attacks each year. While the numbers vary each year, around 700 million people in the world get sick from mosquito-borne viruses, resulting in more than a million deaths every year!
Our private cabin was built on stilts with a spacious tent on top. Complete with canopy bed, sofa and private bathroom with the most amazing view onto a watering hole on the Miombo premises.
Right in the first night we knew why. A herd of Elephants came to drink in the night and made themselves clearly heard. It was surreal sitting on the toilet and looking over a group of Elephants barely 50 meters away. Definitively a most memorable accommodation.
Seeing all the elephant poop in the camp, we knew why everything was built on stilts and we were cautioned leaving our tree tent at night.
In the morning after a hearty breakfast of cooked eggs your style (did we mention that we are eating way too much here?) we got to know our horses. The riding stable is run by Peta and Oliver, a young and very nice couple from Zimbabwe and Sweden. Esther had Texas, a lanky 21 year old thoroughbred ex-race horse, and Chris had Noni (short for Anonymous), a huge 18 hand warmblood that did not want to jump anymore.
They both had trail/stock saddles on them which we both agreed were not the most comfortable to sit on. No problem, each horse also has an English saddle, so we were promised. We went out criss crossing the private concession lands next to the Hwange NP and came across our first Elephant on horseback encounter.
Both approaching a water hole from two different sides was our small group of five riders from one side and a herd of about eight elephants from the other. Bulls, cows and little baby elephants all mixed together slowly approaching the water. We were about 50 meters apart and the Elephants were sniffing us out. Standing very still, the ears pricked forward, our horses were observing but neither animal species showed much fear.
It was special to get so close to such magnificent beasts without any boundary in between us. On we went through bushland, on trodden elephant paths and directly though the bush without any path. We came upon some Impala, some wart hogs, a kudu but not much else.
For Lunch we were met with our crew of volunteers that were staying at Miombo as well. Besides a regular safari program on horseback, Hwange Horseback Safari (HWS) hosts up to ten volunteers (work & travel style) at any given time. All girls between 18 and 25 usually but this time they also had two Americans that were 60+. The volunteers stay between two weeks and three months paying a much less then the regular guests and helping out with community services and the horses. At the time we went, we had four Germans, two Americans, one Scottish girl and one from Dubai. Lunch was brought to the waterhole by Oliver, Peta’s boyfriend and a group of volunteers. What a luxurious lunch , decked table, quiches and salad all served with wine and beer. A true luxury treatment for us.
In the afternoon we did not see a single animal and wondered why until Peta pointed out the lots of lion tracks on the sandy road. Lots of them.
She found out from the lion research center in the national park that a large pride of lion had just moved into that area and that scared most of the game away. Needless to say, we were on high alter from that time onwards.
Back at the lodge and after warm showers we headed out with the land rover again for sundowners. We could really get used to those ! We drive to a Vlei (old river bed now covered in grass, rich with wild life and water holes) and snacked on spring rolls , chips and Wine watching the game drift by.
Elephants, baboons, impalas and finally also a rate sighting of African wild dogs.
Today we got up really early, well before sunrise, to lie in hide in a little doug out right next to the waterhole of the Vic Falls Safari Lodge. It’s called a hide and makes you practically invisible to the game. We met Charles, our Guide from the lodge and at the crack of dawn we drive and then marched on foot to the hide at the water hole. The nights are chilly here, barely 12 degrees Celsius so we wore many layers and brought blankets for our 2 hr stay in the hide. It turned out to be a bird sort of day.
We waited and waited looking at flocks of Guinea fowl, Cranes, ugly looking Marabou storks, Egrets and even two pelicans. A lot of other smaller birds came and went until finally a beautiful male Kudu appeared and slowly approached to drink. In a blink of an eye he was gone again.
Some Impala and female Kudus arrived, but not the hoped for Elephant or Buffalo herd.
Nevertheless Charles served us some warming coffee, tea and biscuits and we learned a lot about his adventures as a wilderness guide which was very entertaining.
After a hearty breakfast at Nguni lodge we packed all our things and headed to our next and main destination for this trip. A horseback safari for 6 days at Miombo lodge.
The drive to Dete was way longer than we thought, not counting on the many pot holes that littered the road everywhere. Our little Toyota Axis two wheel drive (we later baptised it ‘Cookie’ since it is a tough cookie) had to navigate around many of the holes where a 4X4 would have driven through.
When we finally turned into Dete it was already 2 PM in the afternoon. We had received a pin through what’s app where we were supposed to meet up but as google maps led us closer and closer to the pin, the road got smaller and smaller. From a two lane country road, we went to a one lane semi asphalted road, to a dirt road to a sand track deeper and deeper into the bush. That’s one of those moments where your relationship really has to pass the test.
We had the eerie feeling that this was definitively not the right way. We literally crawled at walking speed to a deserted looking little hut that read: Hwange National Park entry.
So at least we knew that we were directionally correct but there was no way our little car would navigate that road any further. Luckily for us, two surprised guards came out and told us that we were wrong and that we should have followed the asphalt road to the Miombo Lodge and camp. Driving back all that sand track with tons of elephant poop everywhere, we luckily did not come across one of those in our little car while slowly backing out of the park again.
We arrived at the lodge an hour and a half later than predicted so Peta our host started to worry where we were. Everyone was happy to see us finally pull into the lodge parking lot.
It turned out that the original Miombo lodge has been located inside the Hwange National park and that pin was still showing that location instead of the real one right outside the park. We would have been so stuck in the middle of nowhere….
To make up for lost time we just dropped our bags off and hopped on our first safari drive and sun downer. We saw a beautiful giraffe very close up and watched one of those fantastic sunsets by a water hole, sharing drinks and stories.
Today we had our first close Elephant encounter and that not even 50 meters from the town limits. After a sleep-in and a leasurely breakfast at our lovely Nguni Lodge we set out for our zip lining tour across the Zambezi Gorge. Just after we left the town limits of Vic Falls, we were stopped cold by the sighting of our first really close Elephant.
He or she was muniching right by the road side , not even 10 meters away from our car. Our adrenalin went up considerably but as the elephant was not showing signs of distress, we could watch it slowly munching on grass and twigs. Often the elephants, ore Ellis, as they are called here, walk through town and cause havoc.
Heading further to our Zip Line adventure, we saw the river from a totally different perspective. Harnessed up, helmet and gloves in place, we set out to do a 9 zip line zig zag across the gorge down to it’s bottom. Despite Esthers fear of heights , we made it down in an enjoyable hour. After our climb up to the rim again, we had a wonderful Cappucino at the Lookout Café with spectacular views across the Zambezi Gorge.
Walking from there we went to the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls in the afternoon. Doing the Zim – Zam as locals call it.
Less entry fees, less people, equally great falls. Just the rainbows were missing. Walking down the gorge until the waters edge we enjoyed a great view of the Bridge before heading up to explore this side of the great falls.
The water plunges 104 meters into the depth and the spray it creates when hitting the rocks below is unbelievable. The spray comes down like very heavy rainfall again.
We wore our Gore tex rain coats on top but our pants and shoes got soaked as if we were standing under a shower.
As we had to walk 45 minutes back to our car, we nearly were dry by the time we reached it. Again we decided for a sundowner (that’s what Zimbos call having a few drinks watching the incredible orange African sunset) at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. This lodge is terribly expensive (we’re talking at least 500 Euros per night for a couple) – but the Buffalo Bar has reasonable priced and has an unrivaled view over a big waterhole. With a delicious Daiquiri and Pina Colada we watched a huge elephant appear at the water hole to drink.
And then it just vanished. We were flabbergasted. How could a four meter tall Elephant just vanish in front of our eyes? It turned out that he hid exactly behind the only scraggly bush that there grew and we could not see him until he moved out again. Amazing how those large animals can make themselves invisible to us.
This is the last day of our vacation. We woke up to pouring rain. Everybody in Vietnam and Cambodia keeps telling us how unusual all this rain is and how cold it is for the season. The ‘cold’ (25 degrees C) we did not mind, quite the opposite, but the constant drizzle, each day a few times and the uniform grey sky was exasperating a bit. But this morning it really poured. In buckets. Forget about the floating village – we felt like our hotel would be floating soon as well. We called our driver Siphan and asked him to come two hours later, as the rain was supposed to lessen by then.
We spent the morning carefully packing as we discovered that Bangkok Air that we booked for the short flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok, has a weight limit of 20 kg per bag, not the 23 kg that we were counting on. After careful packing Esther’s bag had 20.5 kg, Chris bought an additional 5 kg online and his had 25.5 kg… hopefully no one would be weighing our hand luggage…
Around 10.30 AM we set out to visit a remote group of temples and do boat trip on the lake to see the floating villages. The rain had indeed lessened but sky was still grey. We saw a group of three of the oldest temples in Angkor, about 30 min sough east of Siem Reap.
Two were under restauration so you could only see parts of it. All three were built between 890 and 980, some with brick, which reminded us of the temples of Bagan in Myanmar.
On we went for a light lunch with delicious soups before heading to the lake.
Alas we got stuck behing a huge funeral procession on a narrow street and there was no way to pass it. It was on its way to a pagoda and bystanders told us that this could take another half hour until we are able to pass it when the whole procession veers off the road. From afar we saw a yellow baldaquin with men carrying the coffin by foot. Thats why the procession only proceeded so slowly and hundreds of people were walking behind it, intermingled with some cars and scooters.
This meant we had to miss out on our boat trip as we wanted to not risk missing our flight later that day. Maybe we’ll be back. It is certainly an intruguing country.
On our final drive back through the archaeological site of Angkor on our way to the airport, we did stop one last time at Angkor Wat and as if to mock us, the sun started to peek out a little bit right before we had to head out.
It was a magical moment and one that we’ll always remember. What a fascinating site and culture. After three days of temples in Angkor even Esther feels that she has had her fill and we’re traveling back to Germany with lots of memories and stories.
Today was supposed to be our Angkor main attraction day…
With no clear sky forecast and therefore no real sunrise visible, we decided to skip the “get up at five AM, get your sunrise picture of Angkor Wat” part.
Instead we made our way there around eight AM and one again cannot really describe the feeling standing in front of the ruins of the main temple at Angkor – Angkor Wat. Surrounded by a huge moat, with two main Gopuras as massive entrance gates, galleries, long terraces, many outlier buildings, Angkor Wat is a most impressive masterpiece of Khmer culture.
Only rediscovered in 1860 by the Frenchman and naturalist Henri Mouhot and 1864 by the German ethnologist Adolf Bastian. At the time, the monumental buildings of Angkor didn’t give up their secret easily: “The overgrowing jungle was so dense in this once civilized place, that we had to clear almost every step forward with a machete”, reported Adolf Bastian in 1865, shortly after his return to Europe. There is quite a tragic story behind their expeditions.
While Henri was the first European to sort of ‘rediscover’ Angkor Wat, he died one year later of tropical feaver. His servant brought Henri’s meticulous notes and sketches back to Europe, where they were presented to the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1864. His vivid descriptions and his sketches sparked the interest of the European researchers community.
When Adolf Bastian came back from Cambodia and presented his findings a year later in 1865, Angkor Wat was already on everyone’s lips. When Bastian presented his work, outlayed in a multi-volume edition and tiresomely detailed, but uninspired and untalented, especially without a single one of his drawings – this work hardly made an impression. It was mostly the french research community that later cleared, excavated and rebuilt the temples. After all – Cambodia was a french colony.
On an important note: Neither Mouhot nor Bastian ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat. The Khmer people who have lived in Cambodia to this day always knew about the existence of the old temples, the soul of the country, so to speak. Even long after the decline of their historical empire, Angkor Wat, like some other buildings, was consistently revered as a holy site. And in the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries and traders made numerous trips to Siem Reap, visiting the temples in the former capital of the Khmer Empire.
With so much history, we felt privileged to stroll around the gigantic premises for two hours with too many other tourists (for our liking, but still far less than pre-covid). The sky unfortunately was again an uniform overcast grey to Chris’ desperation. It did not diminish the grandeur and impression one gets from walking those sacred halls.
We made a mental note to come back the next day at a different time, outside the tour groups schedule.
After a nice lunch we visited several more outlier temples, too many to mention, just enjoy the grandiose pictures Chris took.
The temple that we found most memorable is Ta Prohm. It was left largely as it was discovered. Located in the middle of the jungle, huge trees have taken possession of the buildings, walls and courtyards.
Very impressive indeed. Green moss and lichen gave the temple an eerie feeling. The temple is one of the big attractions as it was featured in the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie 20 years ago. It was the temple we liked most (beside a smaller one we saw the day before).
It is like Chris had imagined Angkor Wat, when he was a kid. Unfortunately nearly all others have been cleared of trees and are still impressive, but less romantic.
As our last visit for the day we chose the Royal enclosure also called Angkor Thom. This huge area is square with a moat, high surrounding walls and has four large entrance gates. Only three are accessible by car. Here lie the former show grounds called Elephant Terrace and leper King Terrace with many carvings along the walls. From up there the king liked to watch parades, games and other spectacles. Behind the terrace lie two smaller buildings, one the private residence of the king and his temple. Very steep to climb (we did not attempt) and an official one under construction.
This temple serves very often as a backdrop for wedding pictures but one had to be careful of all the monkeys trying to steal food and other items from you. We leisurely wandered around the huge grounds until we came face to face with a very unusual temple, called Bayon.
Bayon was the heart piece of the Angkor Thom and served as main temple and to conduct royal business. It is a massive mound of stones heaped upon each other (since the Khmer didn’t know mortar at the time, each and every stone had to be chiselet to fit). 74 Prasats were pointing their roof into the sky, a very large Prasat crowning the three level structure on top.
Each prasat has four large buddha like faces (or supposedly the face of the king himself) carved in each direction. Each face is about two meters high. You can only walk the bottom two layers of the structure but those alone are a maze in itself. Many little paths through small chambers and corridors lead to small prayer and altar chambers.
Some lead nowhere, others lead up or down. A true maze in massive proportions. Chris did not like this one as it looked to massive and messy for him … Esther was fascinated – except for the monkeys of course.
Calling it a day after seeing plenty of temples, we decided to make a half day trip tomorrow to a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake instead and stop by a few outlier temples conveniently on the way (Chris was templed out but Esther was not, so this seemed a good compromise).
After having walked 15 kilometers that day, we treated ourselves to a nice Khmer foot and back massage, given by two young women with six kids between them but no more husbands who told us the struggles they have when tourism is so low. They sounded genuine and it must really be hard getting by here with so little. Situations like those always remind us how lucky we are and grateful we should be each day for what we have.
We had another nice dinner here in Cambodia, Khmer curry and Loc Lak (Alaska and Finn might remember the Elephant Walk Restaurant in Boston…) Beef with a delicious sauce and rice – and as Esther now learned – with an egg sunny side up on top in the original version.
We had decided to add three days in Cambodia at the end of our trip to Vietnam as we were flying out of Bangkok. Cambodia lies smack between Vietnam and Thailand. Also we were hoping that tourism would not be back in full force after the pandemic and the many travel restrictions. Well – not all of Cambodia in three days, just a small portion around Siem Reap in the North.
So we booked ourselves for three days into one hotel and had one driver for the entire time there. It was Esthers big dream to once see the temples of Angkor. Which are normally quite overrun with tourists – 6.6 million registered visitors in 2019 to be precise. In December 2021 Cambodia opened its border again and tourists are slowly coming back. But the numbers are still low – so far only 62.000 tickets are being sold monthly according to Angkor enterprise. Do the math and you understand, why many Cambodians are in trouble.
But first Chris had arranged a three hours horseriding tour to one of the temples away from the others. One that was not on the normal tourist routes. We got picked up by a Tuk Tuk at 7 am for an early start to the ride as Cambodia was much hotter than Vietnam.
Forecast was to be mixed weather but 29°C and high humidity. It felt like walking in a hot house at 8 AM. Riding through town in a Tuk Tuk gives you great insight about a country. Cambodia is quite different from Vietnam.
Whereas Vietnam gave us the impression that it´s people were much closer to the Chinese in celebrating Lunar New Year, there were a lot of Taoists, Chinese influenced cuisine and the people had features and lighter skin similar to the Chinese. Here in Cambodia the influence of Thailand can be felt at every corner. Restaurants have often Khmer and Thai food on their menu.
The many golden pagodas, the Thai inspired cuisine, the features an skin of most Cambodians are much darker and looking similar to Thai. Buddhism and Hinduism are wide spread and their Khmer new year gets celebrated around April time frame. Cambodia also gave us the impression that the country is still very much struggling with the aftermath of Covid and the economic impact. Vietnam seemed to be on a fast track to become ‘little China’ as industrious and business like they appeared. Quite capitalist actually. While in Cambodia they still struggle to make ends meet.
Tourist numbers are still very low and many tourists just hop in and out of their one main attraction – the three major temples of Angkor – not spending much time or money in the country. We spoke to drivers, massagists, receptionists and the answer is always the same: we hardly could feed our families during the crisis. We had no work. The government is not giving any assistance and is at the same time very corrupt. And so many just scraped by working on the fields or on construction sites on a very meager salary. Despite the fact that (we felt) that the country is behind Vietnam in it’s development we instantly liked it a lot (more).
As we only had three full days there we decided to start with a slow way to explore on horse back.
There is only one stable in Siem Reap, the closest town to the temples and we heard good things about it. Established in 2002 by a Cambodian who used to live in California it is the only stable of it’s kind and quality in all of Cambodia. The horses were small but well shod, fed and treated. Instead of straw or wood chips, they use rice husks as stall bedding.
For us it was mainly a walking scenic ride and we went on small roads, bumpy tracks through the fields and even through streams.
For a change the sun was shining and we could observe early morning life unfold. Stalls selling gasoline in old Whisky, Gin and Batida de Côco bottles (cheaper than at the gas station) for the two-stroke engines, families following their chores.
Laundry is paid by the kilo and local specialties are large frogs from the grill.
After about a good hour we arrived at our first ancient temple, Wat Athvear, that still housed an active monastery and pagoda next to it. Obviously the first one is always impressive. We tethered the horses to a nearby tree and started walking towards the ruins. Immediately an officer started to meet us to check our Angkor temple pass.
We had bought a three day ticket online. We were to show that pass at every entrance point from now on and it’s been meticulously checked, even going as far as checking our pass numbers and pictures with the one they had on file and seeing if both match. We were quite surprised, but then crooks are inventive…
We wandered through the ancient small temple which was mostly in rubbles. There is so much still to restore here and not enough money so the bigger temples get priority. It was built in the 12th century and served as a Hindu temple.
We learned that each temple is laid out differently but shares a few elements that always repeat itself in some form or fashion.
Gopuras are the entrance gates to each temple. There could be at least two but as many as four. Some small-ish others very massive and elaborate. Then each temple has one or several terraces often lined with stone balustrades in form of Naga, the snake creature with a multi headed cobra front and pulled by many people, then there are multiple Prasats in each temple.
Prasats are conical shaped buildings with real or fake doors that symbolize a place that is closer to the gods in the sky. Temples often have small prasats around the base and a big central Prasat that is the main element around which all others are grouped in orderly and symmetrical fashion. Some temples are protected by a moat or are pyramid shaped. Pyramids often symbolize Mount Meru, the mountain where some of the gods live, and are hard to climb up as many of them are very steep. When excavating many temples a stone steele was found which often describes the temple and life at the time.
The temples of Angkor were all built between 890 and 1300 and depict the rule and might of the Khmers during that time. More to come later.
We wandered through our first small temple in awe. Not having the exact calculations on static and soundness, every wall and ceiling here seemed oversized. Walls were at least half a meter thick, the ceilings made of huge stone blocks, the windows supported by many small columns and the rooms and corridors are very narrow. Add to that the weathered appearance of a thousand years and you just stand there in amazement.
As our temple was an active monastery, we visited the very nice and small pagoda that stood next to it.
Finally we hopped on our horses again and made our way back to the stable. There is a lot of construction going on, so we are not sure if the ride will still be pleasant in the next years. But it seems, that the stable will be closed soon, since the owner is over 80 and his kids live in the US.
Already we liked Cambodia and in retrospect we should have maybe divided our time more evenly between the two countries.
Siphan, our very helpful driver, picked us up from the horse ranch and we had a yummy and very cheap lunch in a local shop next to the street. By now it was overcast and dark rain clouds seem to gather. We fear the bad weather followed us from Vietnam to Cambodia.
Many one day tours only do Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm as the main three temples and be done with it. Avoiding those tours was our goal, so we decided to first visit a few temples off the beaten track. Banteay Srei is also called the ‘citadel of the women’ and lies about 30 minutes north east of the main temple area and is known for it’s delicate and ornate stone carvings.
It’s a small elegant temple. We drove there and luckily there were only very few others, so we could explore at leisure. On every building we saw were lots of dancers engraved called Apsaras.
They differ in hairstyle, gesture and dress. Bantaey Srei had the most and finest we saw in all of Angkor.
We made our way back to the main group by stopping at several lovely and always different temples. Most are partly restored and all except one we saw are cleared of the big trees and jungle greens. One cannot describe in words really how it is to walk through those ruins. Thinking of how much power, life and action they once held. So we will not try to put it into words but let the pictures speak for themselves.
We had a few sprinkles while walking through but nothing major. Unfortunately no blue sky either. Just at the end of the day the sun started to peak out a little bit. That’s when Chris’ face lit up as well.
And so we made the temple of Bakheng our last stop as it is a well known sunset spot for visitors.
Walking up 15 minutes and then climbing the steep pyramid on top for another 5 minutes we arrived out of breath to see the last rays of the sun shining across the jungle forest.
The view was spectacular even though the sky was mostly cloudy and no setting sun was shining on Angkor Wat, which could be seen in the distance.
What an impressive first day here in Cambodia. Repeat tomorrow. We were exhausted having walked and climbed so many steps in 29 degree heat and high humidity that we just had a light dinner and plopped to bed for deep sleep.
Today is our last day in Vietnam. Tonight we´ll catch a flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia for a three day stop in Angkor Wat before heading back home by way of Bangkok from there.
As our plans is only leaving at 6.30 PM we still have a full day to spend. Unfortunately how else could it be, the weather gods still announced rain…. We’ve never had a vacation with so much wet weather than we had here. Don’t travel to Vietnam in January, unless you like overcast sky and rain. A mere two days of sunshine that was all. Add to that a warm haze in the Mekong and the rest was grey and wet. What a pity as the country itself would have looked so much nicer in the sunshine.
We still had some errands to run in Hội An.
Chris needed to pick up his shoes and belt, Esther needed a last fitting for her dress and pants at the local tailor. Both of which turned out great. Then we had to face the packing challenge. Stuffed to the gills, our suitcases each weighed just above or just under 23 kgs. We have no more room for anything else.
We said good bye to Hoi An, a lovely looking town that sometimes felt too crowded for us with all the tourists and with few interesting landmarks. For the folks who are looking for shopping and party, it’s the town to be.
There was one more attraction we wanted to see in Vietnam that was on the way to the airport. The Marble Mountains.
Originally a quarry for real marble, a whole village close to Da Nang, North of Hoi An, was specialised in marble stonemasonry. Add to that a series of caves and temples, you get quite an interesting place. The marble mountains consists of five large rocks in the outskirts of a Da Nang city, complete with temples and caves.
Nowadays, recognizing the touristic value this respresented, and not wanting to eat away at their attraction, they stopped quarrying the local marble and instead work with imported marble from China. The whole street is lined with stone mason shops that offer figurines and larger scale figures and statues made of marble, jade, and all sorts of other stone in all shapes and sizes.
We had arranged for our airport transfer driver to stop for two hours at marble mountain as it was on the way to the airport. Taking advantage of a small rain break we made our way to to top of the largest rock formation.
You can see the seaside, the city and the inland with the other four rocks from up top. We wandered around the rock, visited five different pagodas and four different caves (all with shrines and buddha statues inside).
Some quite small, others rather large. Some statues looked freshly painted, other really old and weathered.
Here we saw lady buddha statues several times, which we had not seen in any other buddhist country before.
Lady Buddha is the Goddess of Mercy who is believed to see, hear and sympathize cries of people in the world.
Her right hand holds a water vase, containing nectar of life and a willow branch in her left hand, used to sprinkle the nectar on the prayers. She is especially worshipped in Vietnam and equal to the male buddha. Actually the largest buddha statue in Vietnam is a female buddha statue outside of Da Nang.
Some of the caves were rather small and one had to squeeze through narrow passages while others were very large and cavernous.
Some let natural light in and that added to the sense of awe when looking from above to many of the small shrines in the cave.
When we were nearly done with our sight seeing it started to rain heavier again and deciding to cut our visit short we headed back down hundreds of stairs to the parking lot.
Arriving drenched but glad we could still see the marble mointains we hopped into our car and drove to the airport for a last Pho soup and a good bye with mixed feelings.
We decided to write a separate final summary as Esther’s and Chris’ impressions as a sum total of the things seen, eaten and experienced in Vietnam differ slightly.
Today we got up early as we wanted to avoid the crowds from the previous day and see the Japanese bridge without people. Hội An was mainly made of three different groups. The Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese.
Bult in 1760 it is made from dark wood on brick stilts it has originally linked two parts of the city together – the Japanese part and the Chinese part. Largely inspired by Japanese design, the bridge features two dogs on one side guarding the bridge and two monkeys on the other.
In the middle is a door leading to a small temple where the smell of incense was so intense that we had to leave.
We wandered past the many temples and pagodas early morning but most of them were still shut. The old town is busy with locals setting up shop but tourists are not yet out and about (except us of course…). Back at the hotel we had a healthy breakfast and then Quang, our guide for today met us for a cycling trip across several islands.
Throwing ourselves bravely into the busy traffic we cycled across Hoi An, the old town, and over a bridge into the new town (Party town, called An Hội). as soon as we left a few streets behind us it got really quiet and the real town started to emerge with it’s busy morning activities.
We cycled on small country roads from island to island, connected by small bridges only accessible by scooter or bike. One of the bridges was made of steel bands and rattled like crazy cycling across. Past freshly planted rice paddies and vegeltable fields we cycled to a small village where we had our first stop at a rice noodle factory.
To call it a factory was a total overstatement as only one elderly couple was producing the rice noodles on four steam cookers. They have been doing that for 25 years and are quite famous around here. Chris and Esther both tried their hands at noodle making.
The most complicated thing is to not get it stuck together otherwise it’s impossible to separate it again.
We bought some really good rice crackers to go and on we went on the bike. Looking at some intricate wood carving and inlay workshops to a family that specialised making coconut cake. Coconut cake is a favourite sweet for us, that we discovered in the Mekong delta. Coconut shavings get soaked in sugar cane water, and colored with some fruit coloring (yellow, red or green, or left white). It is then cooked in a wok and then finally coated in more sugar. Yum! A real coconut treat! We would call those coconut bands, they call it coconut cake and it is only cooked for TET, their Vietnamese luna new year festival that is happening on January 21. this year.
So every familiy is getting ready for it. All the businesses are in high demand from the lady that sells fresh sand for the incense stick holders to the many lantern shops and card makers. It’s the biggest family festival of the year and the whole country takes at least three days off with all shops closed. It’s time for family and friends and not tourists. We bought some coconut cake as well to bring home and continued to cycle to a little boat that was supposed to ferry us back to the mainland, bikes and all for our kayak excursion and then lunch.
So far the weather goods have been at least OK as we had no rain so far. The ferry dropped us at the kayak place and we got into our two seater and started paddling through some canals close to the big river.
We colorful king fishers, white egrets, little crabs as we paddled through the forest of water coconut palms. It was a very peaceful half hour before it started raining again and we slowly headed back against the wind and arrived wet at the boating place. Well it would have been too nice without the rain….
After some biking we arrived at our lunch place and were glad to sit down and enjoy a delicious meal with local delicacies. As always we told ourselves we’ll go on a diet when we come home as we have eaten so many good things here that each of us put on a few pounds for sure!
Cycling back to Hội An in the rain was not much fun and so we cut the day shorter than intended. We preferred to kick back with a good cappucino at a french café around the corner.
At six PM Chris was scheduled for a fitting for his shoes and after that we had a delicious dinner at a small vegetarian restaurant trying out blue tea. Yes it’s a blue flower that’s called butterfly flower and the tea is called butterfly tea.
Once you pour water in it it turns blue, if you add lime (acid), it turns purple. Quite a strange sight.
We called it an early night as we had lots to pack for the next day and both were already on our check in limit of 23 kg for our luggage for the flight to Cambodia…
Today we traveled from Hué to Đà Nẵng by train and then by car to Hội An. Luckily we had seat reservations as the train was sold out.
There is only one railway track in Vietnam connecting the five major cities together. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Đà Nẵng, Hué, Dong Hoi and Hanoi. There are only 2-3 trains a day, plus some cargo trains and so for the majority of the distance there is only one train track for both sides. Every 50 Kilometers is a stretch of parallel track so the trains can pass each other on their way.
Train accidents are rare as there are only a few of them and the maximum speed is 60 km/h. They are very useful to travel overnight as they have sleeper cars . Our trip from Hué to Da Nang only lasted about 2.5 hrs. No need for a sleeper car for us. Waiting for our train at the Hué central station, we were amazed at how many people took pictures on the tracks as they are on level ground with the platform for the passengers. German train personnel would have had a fit.
Slowly and with some delay the train started to approach with a lot of honking to make the people leave the tracks and we heaved our heavy suitcases onto the carriage and into our very large overhead compartment.
They are really geared towards people having lots of luggage. We saw plenty of boxes, suit cases, bags of all shapes and sizes. Often a whole trolley full for a single family.
Settling down into our seats, having bought some Coke, Water and Pringles at the station to get us through lunch, we watched the other travelers. Opposite us was a Vietnamese couple, he much older than she, she wearing a mask at all times, he did not bother. opposite on the other side as a Swedish couple, that looked like they had no fun whatsoever watching films on their iPhones the whole time.
We have to admit: due to the weather there was not much of a view beyond watching the passengers in our coach. A number of the other passengers went straight to sleep curled up somehow in old fashioned plastic leather clad seats (with USB ports for charging!).
All of a sudden there was some commotion at the back of our carriage. Ah! food was arriving! Three trolley carts were wheeled in quite noisily, two filled with buffet style open containers full of cooked food.
The entire carriage started to smell like grilled pork and onions. Meals were served for the paying passengers on real plates (no plastic!) complete with steamed rice and vegetables. Quite fascinating to watch. The third trolley had smaller items and drinks. We opted for four hard boiled eggs as a snack which proved to be a good choice. Slowly the train chugged along the curvy tracks along the eastern coast of Vietnam. Sometimes with barely 10 km/h, depending on windiness, passing traffic and steepness. It would have been a great scenic drive were it not for the rain again. Big droplets on the windows does not make for great views.
Arrived at Đà Nẵng station we were picked up by our driver for another 45 min drive to Hội An. Đà Nẵng is a big city and quite commercial. Lots of businesses and trading hubs are headquartered here as it’s half way between HCMC/Saigon and Hanoi. We did not plan on spending any time there apart from using it as a landing and departing spot just like many others do. Our next target was Hội An.
Hội An has not been destroyed by the wars at all and has a beautiful old town that is largely preserved as it was in olden days. It is said to be the „frenchest” and most picturesque city in Vietnam.
Having checked into our centrally located hotel (Hội An Central Hotel its fitting name), we immediately set out on foot to explore. Having high expectations on temples, pagodas, old buildings etc. we almost felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists clogging the streets.
Except at the Pearl place, we had not met many tourists at all here in Vietnam, always avoiding the crowds and all of a sudden we were engulfed in masses of people. Chris muttered something about feeling to be at Disneyland. Talk about a cold shower…
We squeezed through some of the sights together with many hundreds of others about then decided that this wasn’t for us and decided to come back later in the hope that the crows would have dispersed in the late afternoon.
Wandering out of the old town, the crowds got immediately less and we settled down to an excellent Bánh mì, a Vietnamese style sandwich. Pondering when to give it another try, we decided first to scout out some tailor and shoe shops.
Hội An is famous for it’s custom tailors who sow a suit, shirt or dress over night to measure. Hundreds of different fabrics are on display, as are some of the styles but they make pretty much everything you want – even from pictures you find on the internet or your from your favorite brand.
As it takes some time to negotiate a price, select colors, fabrics and take measurements, we decided after having wandered around comparing shops, fabrics and their prices, to settle for a lady tailor a bit out of town. Esther wanted to get a traditional style dress made as well as a pair of light summer pants. The negotiation, selection of fabrics and measurement taking took some time but Esther felt the price of 55 dollars for the dress and pants were fair. She had to pay 5 dollars more because she was taller than most customers and the seamstress needed more fabric :-). Sunday morning (Day 18) we can pick it up.
Chris decided that he was going to take advantage of the show makers here (Vietnam is very well known for excellent shoe making) and after having decided between different leather shops he got his foot measurements taken on a piece of paper.
What a luxury having leather shoes made to measure for 75 USD a pair. He picked on of the designs they had in their shop but modified it with a design he liked from home. The shoemaker is going to work off a picture to make it happen. Chris selected two different tone leathers and then decided on the spot to have not one, but two pairs made. It’s really easy here once you see the quality/ price ratio.
Saturday evening he is going back to try them on and in case some changes need to be made, they will be finished by Sunday.
After all this shopping it was dark and we decided to head back into the old town.
We were amazed at how many people had already left. Turns out that many of the tourists only came as day tourists from Đà Nẵng and are leaving around five PM.
It felt much more relaxed walking the old town with a lot less people in it. Now we can actually enjoy the old buildings, the many small shops, cafés, restaurants and street vendors.
Opposite Hội An across the river is An Hội, the party town.
We still saw many people, blasting music and blinking lights there but after a quick tour around we decided that we much prefer the relative quietness of Hội An. We ended the evening, thinking Hội An was not that bad after all, with a drink at a local bar, where two elderly gentlemen played the guitar and banjo. That is more down our alley.
Today we woke up to a drizzle again. The weather gods are not with us on this trip… More rain than sun and many days just a cloudy and hazy grey sky.
Nevertheless we set out with a full day of activities planned, hoping for some rainless windows during the day. Both clad in Gore-Tex ( had to put that plug in…) we drove to the ancient citadel. Hué was the imperial capital for many centuries, before Saigon and Hanoi.
Strategically situated between the North and South of the country, king Gia Long built a huge fortified complex between 1803 and 1833. The outer square wall measures two meters thick and ten kilometers long once around. The moat protecting it measures 30 meters across and four meters deep. It has ten gateways. It is a huge area once you enter it.
The citadel has three distinct sections: the outer fortifications, the imperial palace and the purple forbidden city. All square shapes nested inside each other.
The imperial palace, where the king resided unfortunately was under renovation, as was the queen’s palace. While select few guests and dignitaries were allowed in the imperial enclosure, the forbidden city was strictly forbidden to all men except the king. Here is where all the hundreds of concubines were living guarded only by eunuchs.
The queen mom also was living here and had a very charming property including living quarters, temple and tea house with pond.
Despite the drizzle we took two hours to wander through the vast terrain of the citadel, admiring the many artifacts that we saw.
The kings seals, the treasury, the royal theater, the many gardens with their meticulously kept bonsai trees and of course the many pagodas and temples inside the citadel.
Too many things to mention, other that the whole complex was badly destroyed by the French and American wars and is slowly still being rebuilt one house at a time. The renovation and cost to keep up such a vast property must be mind boggling.
After the visit to the citadel, we had one more stop before lunch: the Tien Mu Pagoda. This is the most famous pagoda in all of central Vietnam. Built in 1844 directly on the Perfume river on a small hill it has a tower with seven stories for a total of 21 meters, a modest temple but a huge significance.
Since 1966 political protest has assembled here after one of the monks who trained here drove to Saigon, poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire as a sign of protest against the suppression of buddism in comparison to the catholic faith.
We went to lunch by dragon boat. The 30 minute drive on the Perfume river (named after the many flower blossoms scents in spring time) is usually very picturesque but with todays rain it literally was a wash out…
We had lunch at a restaurant called litte Italy, of all places, but had a completely Vietnamese meal there.
On we went to two of the six kings tombs around Hué. Not expecting much, we were surprised to see the splendor and size of the tombs.
First we climbed up a hill where King Khải Định is buried.
King Khải Định was emperor of Vietnam between 1916 and 1925. The tomb took eleven years to built and Khải Địn died before it was finished.
A larger than life size bronze statue of him sits inside the building on top of his actual tomb underneath.
The whole area is a weird mix of French grandeur like some of the French kings had and Chinese tradition, as everywhere Chinese symbols and craftsmanship are on display. From French golden mantle clocks to intricate Chinese mosaics. From Louis XV furniture to lots of Chinese stone dragons everywhere.
This tomb is quite a statement for a king, widely regarded as a French puppet as Vietnam was a French colony during his reign. It was nevertheless a worth while visit.
On we went to the second tomb for today. This one in total contrast to the first one. King Minh Mạng’s reign lasted from 1820-1840 and it was him who planned this stunning landscape tomb but he never got to build it.
It was actually then built by his successor king Thiệu Trị and took only three years to build. What makes this tomb so unique is the garden setting and the intricate ponds and lakes that surrounds the multi tiered layout. Laid out on flat land it nevertheless makes one climb up and then down stairs to get from one section to the next. From the Honor courtyard (complete with honor guard in stone consisting of two elephants, two horses and eight Mandarin warriors) steps lead up to the Stele pavillion, from there steps down, and then up again to the Pavilion of light (where the king was supposed to spend leisure time).
Then down a flight of stairs again and up to the kings sepulcher where his actual gravesite is. In between staircases are bridges across artificial lakes with plenty of fish in them.
All this built in traditional style and in a grandiose garden setting. The pictures speak for themselves. It was a really impressive afternoon, despite the weather.
Back at the hotel late afternoon, we just wanted to relax and pack for tomorrows trip to Da Nang and Hoi An.
Today was mostly a travel day for us. Leaving the cave region and making our way by car to Hué. During the trip we have two stops planned: one to visit the Vinh Mốc tunnels and other on the demarcation line formerly separating North and South Vietnam into two nations.
We arrived at the Vinh Mốc tunnels during a drizzling rain adding to the gloomy atmosphere there. During the Vietnam war, one costal village was the target of unrelenting US bombing as it was known that many of the weapons deliveries for the insurgency in the south were going through Vinh Mốc. As a response to the bombing, the villagers dug an incredible series of tunnels underground. When they heard the bombers come close, the entire village of 90 families disappeared underground.
The maze of tunnels with ten exits/entries was dug into the clay soil by hand. Each tunnel was no more than 130 m high and maybe 50/60 cm wide. In total nearly two kilometers of tunnel were dug. The underground maze was built on three levels. On level one, about seven meters underground were the tunnels for the soldiers / fighters. Level number two, about 15 meters underground, housed the villagers. In intervals, small niches were dug out into the tunnel walls that served as sleeping and living space for each family. The space was only two meters by 120 cm and was no higher than 120 cm. Easy to become claustrophobic under ground.
This level housed also a hospital, maternity ward (in total 17 children were born underground) two water wells and a meeting room.
The third level, another seven meters below level two is where the weapons and ammunition were stored. A few of the entrances faced the seaside so goods could easily and quickly be brought to and from shore into a tunnel. The other tunnel entrances/exits were facing the mountains as potential escape routes.
Walking crouched through those dark tunnels with sticky, stale air made one immediately uncomfortable and living down here for a longer period of time seemed awful.
While we had smart phone flash light functions on and some tunnels had a few light bulbs, in former times they only had candles to give a bit of light. No electricity down here.
It brought back the war and it’s gruesome realities to ones attention, especially as we have a war going on in Europe right now. We shuffled our way under ground through all the tunnels that we were able to visit and came away in awe of the sheer grit, wit and ingenuity by which the Vietnamese defended their country against the US.
Continuing on to the actual demarcation line between the South and the North, we entered into the DMZ (demilitarized Zone), a ten kilometer wide strip which was declared no man’s land between the two Vietnams.
Nobody was allowed to live here. Right smack in the middle flows the Bến Hải river.
We walked over the original border crossing bridge from the North to the South, the different color of the bridge as well as the white line on the ground making sure everyone knew were the two Vietnams met.
Arrived in Hué we checked into our hotel and pretty much called it a day. Enough rain, drizzle and sobering sights for one day.
Today the weather gods again were not favorable to us. We are staying in a very nice lakeside resort with beautiful views and a bungalow directly on the water – but at 15 degrees and drizzling rain, we don’t feel like swimming, kayaking or hoping on a SUP.
Instead we chose what is the best thing to do on a rainy day: visit some caves. We chose two great caves, one on foot and one by boat.
Fearing that we’ll face a crowd of tourists in a confined space we asked to start the day early and our guide Ngoc agreed. We set out at 8 AM and 30 minutes later we arrived at a large empty parking space in front of Thiên Đường Cave better known as Paradise Cave. Not to imagine what this place looks like with thousands of tourists in the summer.
We were literally car number two in the parking lot. Setting out on a leisurely walk for about a mile, declining the golf cart, we arrived at a set of stairs and had to climb up for about 15 minutes. Our thighs were burning at the end of the climb. After a short rest we descended a hundred+ steps again into the cave mouth of Paradise cave. This cave was only detected in 2005 by a local farmer and only 2010 made accessible to the public. It lies in the middle of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, one of the UNESCO world heritage sites.
In order not to destroy the cave interior and natural set up by trampling tourist feet, a wooden walkway and stairs were installed to protect the cave. With its length of one kilometers, it figures in the Vietbook (Vietnamese Guinness Book of Records) as longest wooden bridge in Vietnam.
The cave mouth is not large and so one has no idea about the vastness of the cavern hidden behind it. A huge open space becomes visible after climbing a few steps down into the cave. Stalagmites and Stalactites are visible everywhere and some have reached enormous dimensions over the millennia.
It is truly a breathtaking sight wandering through the ancient rock formations nearly all alone in the cave. We were so lucky. It was quiet, one could hear that many drops splashing down from the cave ceiling and its many cracks. Bizarre shapes had formed and are still growing today. The entire cave is lit and so one gets a very good sense of the huge dimensions of the cave.
The ceiling is at places more than 70 meters high and the width can span 150 meters across. We felt privileged to have that cave nearly all to ourselves where otherwise thousands of tourists shuffle through. The noise level must then be awful whereas it was completely silent for us except for the dripping water and one lone singing bird that must have gotten lost in the cave. That little chap was singing his heart out on top of a stalagmite and looked really lost.
The wooden walkways only get you one kilometere inside the cave, the other 30 kilometers of the entire cave length are not open to the public with the exception of some overnight expeditions under the right circumstances. The cave is partly submerged further down and so passages are only open during low water levels.
Walking out again we saw a wave of tourists flooding in after us and felt blessed again for having gotten here so early.
On we went to Cave number two, Phong Nha Cave in the same national park. Those two are only 20 minutes apart. We decided to go there at 11.30 AM as most tours are getting ready to have lunch during that time.
Phong Nha has been voted as one of the most wonderful caves in the world for a number of reasons: for its longest underground river, for its most beautiful underground lake. For its highest and widest entrance, for its most beautiful and widest dry cave, for its most beautiful sandbank and reef, as well as for its most spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and longest water grottos.
You can’t get there on foot, so we boarded a covered little boat. A line of blue boats were tied to the dock and we boarded one in the company of two girls from South Korea. We were only four passengers plus our guide Ngoc. It took about 30 minutes to get to the mouth of the cave with a slow, noisy diesel motor propelling the boat forward. We saw dozens of blue boats tied when we left and only one blue boat at the entrance to the cave, ready to leave.
Our boat captain had to check with authorities that we were good to go in. Only 20 boats were allowed in at one time. In peak season blue boats have to queue up and wait their turn to go into the cave. But we could start immediately and as soon as we reached the cave mouth the motor was switched off and our crew of two took up rowing the boat into the cave. The silence was a blessing!
Lit in similar style as Paradise cave, we glided silently on the river, deeper and deeper into the cave. The cave is a bit more than seven kilometers long, the river that runs through it originating from Laos, but at times not navigable. Either too shallow (so the boats only go 1.500 meters into the cave) or too flooded and then no tours can operate at all.
We were in awe looking at all the bizarre and beautiful rock formations. Here is where supposedly the NVA (North Vietnam Army) hid a huge stockpile of weapons for the fight against the South. And as the US tried to bomb the cave mouth during the war, they accidentally enlarged the cave mouth even further rather than having destroyed the entrance which was the original plan. We did not meet a single other boat on the entire trip inside the cave until the very end.
Right before exiting the cave one could hop on one of the sand banks and walk the remaining 100 meters on foot. Some views nearly looked like paintings. Absolutely beautiful.
Again we were the only ones walking the last 100 meters so we had the place to ourselves for as long as we wanted. Walking out of the cave mouth one passes the obligatory little stalls selling souvenirs, food and drinks. Business must be tough on a rainy day and off season. Our boat was the only one tied to the quay waiting for us to arrive and drive home.
Just as we set out on our return journey we could not believe our luck, as we saw six full blue boats turning around the corner and starting their journey into the cave. Again we felt blessed by our luck having been here so early. For the little stalls this is good news though as tourism is their biggest source of income and easier than the hard farm work.
Back at the dock we had a yummy late lunch in a local restaurant and felt we definitively needed to walk some of that good food off. Only item on our afternoon schedule was the Phong Nha Botanic Garden about 30 minutes away.
Not sure what to expect from a botanical garden in the middle of a natural reserve and with so many plants growing freely, we set out on foot with our umbrella as it had started to rain again.
Walking through a jungle path we saw various plants and trees unknown to us, porcupines and for a brief moment some monkey’s. Our destination was the Gio waterfall. We were in more for the exercise than having expectations to see anything remarkable on a rainy day with low hanging clouds. We were pleasantly surprised.
After a steep and rocky climb down, using ropes and little rickety ladders, lucky not to slip, we arrived at a small picturesque waterfall flowing into a basin that absolutely invited for a swim were it not for the drizzle and coolish temperature. On a warm sunny day we would have loved to dive in and get wet.
Ready to turn back and start our return journey, we were surprised when Ngoc started to climb up to the top of the waterfall on the right hand side with the help of some ropes and motioned for us to follow. Climbing with an (by then folded) umbrella in hand up on a slippery slope and holding onto a moving rope was quite a challenge.
It proved absolutely worth it. Up on what we believed the top of the waterfall was. Turns out the climb opened up onto the real larger waterfall not visible from below.
Due to the rain the waterfall was much more impressive than during dry season our guide told us. It was very picturesque and wonderful to watch.
We had to cross the stream and had to climb up more ropes and ladders to the real top of the fall, nearly slipping but happy and exhausted on the top. What a nice walk! It was nearly dusk by the time we arrived back at the car park.
We certainly had an action packed day today and we felt we made the best out of a bad weather day. The day calls for an early night and a good sleep…
After yesterdays stroll through a crowded old quarter, we had the opposite this morning. Leaving our central hotel quite early at 8.30 AM we walked through sleepy streets and closed shops in Hanoi center. We were headed to the temple of literature again, as Esther wanted to see it this time without that many tourists and Chris was a good sport. Of course by the time we walked there a number of local tourists had arrived and the place wasn’t as empty as we had hoped.
Armed with a packet of incense sticks and matches, we visited the ancient school and made our new years and good will wishes while leaving the incense to burn slowly. Apparently Confucius was already teaching at this school. He is so revered everywhere for his state building and moral compass but what many people don’t know is that he had very clear opinions on what a man’s or a women’s role should be.
Men are to be taught literature, math and writing women are supposed to be beautiful, gentle and well behaved. His attitude would not have been working in todays world. But he did get credited by defining many of the do’s and dont’s that make up a functioning society.
After the temple we stopped by the ancient citadel in the middle of town. It is still being excavated in many places, dated back to the 11th century, then converted into a military training ground during the Vietnam war before being turned into a large scale open air museum today. The sheer size of the citadel, which had originally three rings of protection, is amazing.
There was also an exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of (North)Vietnams victory over the US, which Chris found very interesting. After all, the Vietnamese successfully stood up against the USA, whose military power was already overwhelming at the time. They were specially proud of shooting down the fearsome B52 bombers.
It was time to head back to the hotel, as our flight to Đồng Hới was leaving mid afternoon.
We allowed ourselves one last delicious freshly prepared smoothie, sitting on mini chairs on a street corner opposite our hotel watching the traffic go by.
By now it was lunchtime and traffic had resumed to it’s normal crazy level. Honking horns are omnipresent. Hundreds of thousands of scooters (an estimated 450 000 scooters in a city of 8 million) descent upon the city each day. They are everywhere. They jump the queue at every red light, forming a moving bee hive when the light turns green. One way streets do not apply to them, even though they officially do. Helmets seem to be optional here (even though officially they are compulsory), masks are optional (even though everyone wears one while driving).
Also optional are the sizes and dimensions of loads that can be transported on them. We saw anywhere from two meter wide loads full of sugarcane to three meter long scooter trailers carrying live animals.
Got three grown live pigs to transport – no problem. Stick each one into a long bamboo basket, strap one on the left, one of the right side of your scooter and one across the back … Got chickens to transport? no problem – strap the dead ones to the front and keep the lives ones in a cage in the back.
Got three dogs to transport on a scooter? no problem – put them in the open foot room of your scooter and hope none falls out. Get four family members across town? No problem – take one child in the front standing before you, let daddy drive , squeeze second smaller child in between Mum and Dad and squeeze Mom on the very back hoping she does not fall off during the journey. Maybe Dad wears a helmet … no need to bother for the others…
It’s amazing what one scooter can take… but cars are simply way more expensive here and a lot slower. And rickshaws aren’t really an alternative we found. You can imagine the air quality all that traffic produces and we feel sorry for the poor people that can’t afford a scooter and have to use a bike each day. We know now why so many scooter drivers are wearing masks while driving. The air pollution is pretty bad.
One thing we haven’t gotten around to yet is to take a GRAB taxi. A scooter taxi of course. Green GRAB scooter drivers are everywhere. They carry a spare helmet and you can book them for anything by app. (Uber has no chance here…). Personal transport, food delivery, running errands – you will find a GRAB driver that is close by and does what you need done.
That’s a wrap for Day 12 as the rest is travel to Dong Hoi and settle into our very nice lake side hotel.
It’s the first day of the new year – and we were getting up at six AM. Not something we usually would do, but the sunrise and scenic beauty of the early morning in Tự Long Bay is just so unique and not to be missed.
We were lucky again and the sky only had a few clouds as the sun was rising slowly behind the karst rock formations. Our ship was swinging calmly in the sea and Chris decided to let his drone fly to catch this magic morning. Us others we were getting ready for our 6.30 AM Tai Chi introductory class.
None of us had done Tai Chi before and so what started easily, following simple movements morphed into the more complex series of connected, flowing poses which challenged all of us. It did feel quite similar to yoga in slow motion.
We had a good laugh trying to follow our Tai Chi master without toppling over. By now we had started the boat up again and moving again towards a small floating fishing village which we were supposed to visit. A village entirely built on water.
While the boat was moving Chris flew the drone again and sweated quite a bit until it was safely home again. Drones apparently don’t like landing on moving objects like boats and so he had to artificially crash land it on deck. At least for this segment of the journey we were really lucky with the weather.
Once anchored for the last excursion of this trip, we boarded our by boat and drove to a swimming dock where we changed into smaller rowing boats, four people to a boat.
Some of the rowing ladies looked like they came straight out of a photo shoot, one even complete with trench coat and hat.
She paddled us around the swimming village, consisting of small houses with small fish farms attached.
Each house had several dogs guarding it and often a colorful fisher boat tied in front. It was a picturesque view.
A challenge though for the families is the school situation. There is no school close by for the children and so either the families with children move to the main land or they board their children with other family members on the main land. They are mostly fishing for squid here and shrimp as the water is too shallow for big fish.
It is also extremely salty, washed from the many limestone formations into the ocean. This makes it perfect for growing oysters. The fishing village also had one pearl farm in their midst as well. Each boat was equipped with a landing net and the fishermen and rowers were catching floating plastic and trash from the sea if they saw any.
The bay and whole area looked very clean. We did not see much trash floating about at all.
Back at the Treasure Junk, we enjoyed a sumptuous brunch before packing our bags and heading back to the harbor.
We all would have loved to stay another day out here. Alas we have to say good bye to our very nice travel family and catch a shuttle back to Hanoi.
Arriving mid afternoon in Hanoi we had the rest of the day to stroll through the old town. Turns out the day of the Hanoi half marathon was today, several roads are still closed to traffic and so it was very pleasant to walk around Hoàn Kiếm lake on foot.
Plenty of families were out and about and enjoying themselves.
In the middle of the lake is a small old pagoda that has seen better days and a small island with a newer pagoda can be reached by a picturesque red foot bridge. Many locals went there to donate for good fortune.
Lunar new year is fast approaching and so everyone tried to get ready for it. This includes making donations, shopping for food and household things to cook for the entire family and of course gift shopping! The Old Quarter is teeming with people, little shops and restaurants are making good business.
We decided to try some street food, pork squewers, little snails, self made BBQ on a little table oven, sweetened water chestnuts just some of many things we hadn’t eaten before.
Glad to be walking after a filling dinner, we set out to explore the famous Hanoi Night Market. It’s only on weekends from seven PM to eleven PM and it’s an entire long road dedicated to little stalls of all kinds. And all kinds of fake goods too. Handbags, eyewear, clothing items of all kinds. Toys, cards, some true handicraft items but most of it was made of plastic.
In between we saw many small food vendors selling sweets and treats for the crowds. We slowly wandered through the sea of people just watching and taking it all in. Europe is so far away…
We decided to call it an early night as we have plans for the morning still before our airport shuttle picks us up at lunchtime. We really like Hanoi, but agreed that we could never life there for a longer period of time. Too much air pollution, too much traffic, too many people…
Today we need to say good bye to Tâm and Dong. One last fantastic breakfast in our lovely hotel and off we went early as we had a four hour drive ahead of us to Hạ Long Bay harbor. It started great with us stopping at a small coffee shop that had egg coffee for Chris (which he had come to love) and a real cappuccino for Esther (which she really misses). Egg coffee or Cà phê trứng is made, by the way, by beating an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk for about ten minutes until it makes an airy, creamy, meringue-like fluff. This eggy goodness is then slowly poured on top of hot (robusta) espresso.
Driving for about two hours we stopped at a rest station that was famous for a vast array of traditional sweets. The Vietnamese turn pretty much anything into a snack or sweet treat. Beans, shrimp, fruit, nuts, beef, pork, soy beans etc. pretty amazing.
We loved one of the nutty treats best and one made of thin coconut shavings rolled in fine sugar. Very yummy. And of course the dried and candied mango. Chris did not want any sweets or salty snacks, he just wanted to take the little kitten with him that he found attached on a leash in the corner of the store. At least we gave it some water.
Continuing on our way we had one more stop before Hạ Long Bay harbor. We stopped at a pearl production site. Together with what felt like a thousand tourists, mainly domestic or from other Asian countries, we watched the painstaking process of pearl seeding, growing and harvesting.
The venue had a number of guides but they all seemed to be busy so Tâm quickly organized for us a French speaking tour guide and simply added us to a group of French to follow. We learned that there are three main types of oysters that produce different pearly. the most common one is the Akoya oyster, producing while translucent pearls. Then the Tahitian Oysters that produce a steely silverish and purplish pearl, often larger than the Akoya. And last but not least the beautiful South Sea Oyster and pearls that are the largest and have a beautiful creamy and yellow color. We watched how the oysters were carefully seeded with a small round ball made of another mussel shell. The oyster is carefully opened a little bit and the round seed ball is implanted carefully into the oyster. Naturally pearls develop around grains of sand that accidently find there way into the oyster.
After having put back in cages into the ocean, the oyster takes between two and four years to encase the little ball with thousands of layers of nacre (mother of pearl/ Perlmutt) before it’s being harvested. Man has no control over this process other than seeding the oyster and putting it back into the ocean. The size, shape or color of the pearl cannot be influenced or seen from outside. About 30% of the oysters die during that period and that can’t be influenced either. When the oysters are opened after their number of years is up it’s always a surprise what pearl awaits. While natural pearls are often asymmetrically shaped depending on the sand corn or dirt that caused the nacre, the cultivated pearls are very often symmetrically round due to the seedling inside, but not all. The best pearls are being used to make jewelry, the others ground and used in cosmetics powders to make our skin glitter.
While the process was fascinating to watch we wanted to escape the many tourists that clogged the pearl shop. So we went on our last drive and arrived at Halong Bay harbor right before 12 noon. We said good bye to Tâm and Dong as they will have three days off now and then ferry other tourists around next week. They have been a very nice, humourful and attentive guide and driver and we told the agency that as well.
Soon after at the very busy ferry and boat terminal we met our fellow travelers who we will be spending new years eve with on board the ‘Treasure Junk’ (yes we know, not a great name in English, as junk means trash). Luckily the boat was far from trashy. It was a very elegant but a bit aged wooden vessel with sails and motor. We were lucky again as the boat was laid out for 30 people and we were only six adults and two children on board. That’s all.
We met a very nice couple from Canada with Polish heritage, now working in Switzerland. And an English couple with two adorable little girls that moved a year ago to Thailand working for the British embassy there. Having plenty of space on the boat we were lucky that the two couples got the prime cabins on the upper deck. What a luxury!
A cabin with at least 20 square meters and a bathroom double the size of ours at home complete with shower and bath tub. Each cabin had an own sun deck as well. The British couple were happy too as they got an extra room for their girls despite not having booked one. What a nice and accommodating crew!
We all got our luggage and had some relax time on the top deck followed by a nice lunch while driving out to Hạ Long Bay.
Where to start to describe this wondrous area? Turquoise blue seas are sprinkled with thousands of little islands.
Those islands are rocky karst formations very raggedy covered partially with greenery and sometimes a small sandy beach. Those island can range form a few meters diameter like a rock in the water to hundreds of meters across. It looks otherworldly and nothing we have seen before. Birds can be heard in large volumes and supposedly monkeys live on some of the rocks as well.
Luckily the sun managed to burn away the haze and so we had a whole afternoon of sunshine and blue skies. It was really an amazing sight as we cruised through those rock formations from Hạ Long Bay to Tự Long Bay. While many only come for a day trip, those ships stay in Hạ Long Bay as it’s easier to reach. s we are spending the night on the boat we cruise further to Tu Long bay, and this one has the same charm as the other but is much less traveled and quieter. Fewer boats, fewer tourists and that’s how we like it.
After about a two hour boar ride we anchored in a small secluded bay, took the smaller side boat and were driven to a floating fishing village that stored canoes to paddle for us.
Two to a boat we headed out with our guide and four boats to spend a leisurely afternoon paddling around the karst rock islands. Very relaxing. The water was clean and not too cold and the sun was shining. No better way to start new years eve.
After an hour and a half of leisurely paddling around, Chris could not wait to finally fly his drone from the top deck into the setting sun, sipping a coke and admiring the world from above through his drone’s eyes. A pretty impressive sight! and finally the weather he had hoped we’d have on this trip.
Before dinner we learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls (not easy with sticky rice paper) and had another hour to relax before new years eve dinner.
Unfortunately Chris was out with a migraine for the rest of the evening and so we were only grown ups to celebrate New years eve. The crew outdid themselves with amazing food decorations, even carving a watermelon with new years good luck wishes.
May 2023 bring many good things to this world.
We are staying two days in a lovely hotel in Tam Cốc, the best on our trip so far. Le Clos du Fil is a boutique hotel in cooperation with a women’s embroidery initiative. The make lovely hand crafted and embroidered things like bags, table cloths, napkins and many more things.
Everything in the hotel room reminds us of it, from embroidered air condition covers, Toilet roll covers, water bottle covers to an embroidered angel on our panoramic window so that birds don’t crash into it. The bathroom amenity kit holder is embroidered as well as the bath robes, towels and bed linens. All with loving detail. The breakfast is fantastic as was our dinner there last night.
Today is our day of the dragon as Esther calls it. She has seen a dragon sculpture on a mountain top that looked very cute and that’s what’s on the plan for today. But first we enjoyed our fantastic breakfast buffet. Fresh fruit, fresh juices, fresh cooked eggs to order, fresh Pho Bo or Pho ga, all sorts of hot local foods, even croissants and very good yoghurt.
We feel we are stuffing ourselves at every meal. Luckily today we are doing some exercise. We picked out some push bikes and headed out of town by bicycle. We got an early start as Tam said day tourists arrive around ten from Hanoi. First we cycled along country roads when we had an unplanned stop at a fish farm that had just brought in their first catch of the day. All sorts of carp and tilapia were in the basin swimming around with the local customers taking their pick from the wiggling fish.
Cycling further we soon arrived at Bích động Pagoda, a buddhist temple, actually three of them.
We were the first visitors there today and everything was empty besides a few locals trying to sell you incense, which we bought for good luck. Crossing a small adorable arched bridge we entered the temple grounds through a pagoda like entrance gate.
Walking up the hill a bit, we saw the first and largest one of the three pagodas. Bích động Pagoda was built in 1428 under the reign of Le Thai To following the ‘three’ Han scripts of three unconnected temples.
The lower one called “Ha” has a beautiful stone dragon in front of an otherwise unassuming building (dragon number one). Many golden buddha statues were inside depicting buddha in different stages of his life. From the three buddhas representing past, present and future to the little boy buddha to buddha being the only one connecting heaven and earth together. The rest of the temple was quite simple.
Up a flight of 100 stone stairs one enters a little shelf of a cave mound into which temple number two, called “Trung” was built into. It had a main building that was smaller than the temple below and to it’s left an even smaller matrimonial temple.
One had to cross through a cave behind the second temple to get to a steep flight of stairs to the third temple called “Thuong”. It’s the smallest of the three and has again little buddha statues inside. One has a great view from above, but cannot be seen from below. It is as if all three pagodas are invisible from below.
It is a privilege to have the place to ourselves as the buildings are small the the stairs steep and narrow. Not great for masses of tourists. The temple is a big attraction for Asian instagrammers, but only the little bridge in the front with the gate in the background.
Our second stop for today is another boat trip on the Ngô Đồng river. Again we were the only tourists and it was very relaxing to be rowed in a small boat through the quiet waters of the river. Pink water lilies were blooming everywhere, occasionally birds would be flying up, king fishers, white cranes, a bird of prey that we could not decipher.
Our rower was a lady who actually used her legs to row instead of the arms. It looked quite weird and uncomfortable but we actually glided quite fast on the river.
Three times we went through caves by boat. Two of them were quite short, but we needed a flash light to cross nevertheless. The third cave was huge and at least a kilometer long.
Pitch black and with the ceiling less than two feet above our heads it felt quite strange. Luckily our rowing lady had a powerful flash light and she pointed out glittering stone formations that grew from the ceiling to us. It looked like silicate that formed low hanging sparkling stalactites over the millennia and they sparkle as light hits them. We explored all three caves on our way.
Back on the bikes we made our way to Tam Cốc again for a (not so) light lunch. Before handing back the bikes. We decided to take a nap at the hotel before heading out to Múa cave and viewpoint by car.
Arrived at the Múa cave area, were were amazed at the number of tourists there and the many costume shops renting authentic local dresses, that people and especially instagrammers love to pose in when atop the mountain.
The Múa cave is nothing spectacular and rather disappointing but the viewpoint on top of the hill is spectacular.
Having to climb up 499 stairs to the top is a challenge for a lot of people attempting the climb. Huffing and puffing, resting often and with unsuitable footwear they make it barely to the top. For us mountain goats – no problem. there are two peaks, one with a small shrine and one with a little pagoda tower on top. We went for the shrine first with a lady buddha watching over the land. The attraction though is not the statue or the view it’s the stone dragon (dragon number 2) that is set atop the ridge leading from a nearby peak to the shrine. That’s the dragon that Esther has been waiting for.
Surprisingly small yet several meters high and about 30 meters long, it looks like it’s hopping on top of the mountain ridge. It looks really cute. And lots of people found the same. To get a picture alone with the dragon proved to be impossible. Well one can’t always have no tourists…
Chris took advantage of five other drones flying to blend in with them flying his own and getting a few good shots from above. Luckily the sun has made it through the cloud cover and the light was a bit better. His mood had improved by now….
Moving onto the second peak to the little pagoda tower on top, that turned out to be the instagrammer’s / TikTok spot du jour… during the short time we were up there, three Asian insta girls wearing different costumes posed in front of the little pagoda tower.
They had even brought their own photographer with them. Other tourists became impatient as they were hogging the sole spot in front. Makes you wonder what they will be doing in a few years time, when instagram or TikTok are no longer the cool thing to do….
Once down at the bottom again we wandered around the compound. Every ten meters there was an instagram posing spot.
We saw countless swings, Heart shapes, LOVE signs, buddha statues, little bridges and yes also a once colorful dragon (dragon number 3) which by now has really seen better times. Nobody paid any attention to it, except Chris who tried to wrestle it.
On our way out we could not resist to use one insta spot ourselves, especially as we won’t have the opportunity to ride any horses in Vietnam. We hopped on some stone horses as the best alternative and shot our own Insta blog picture….
Back at the hotel we allowed us the luxury of a full body massage which made us wan to go to sleep straight away if it were not for the french fusion dinner we were promised. Unfortunately ‘Chez Loan’ proved to be rather disappointing. No fusion and just an average Vietnamese meal and so we went home as soon as we were done eating. Dragon day came to an end and we finally saw some sun today.
Today we said good bye to Pù Luông Reserve and the mountains. We did not do as much hiking as we would have liked, but nobody was keen to get drenched with all the rain pouring down. If the weather does not change Chris is getting the weather blues as the grey uniform sky and the drab light makes it impossible for him to take good pictures which is bad for business.
According to the weather forecast we still have two more such day in front of us. Let’s hope it gets better than forecast. Today is mostly a driving day from Pù Luông reserve to Tam Cốc, a little township in the state of Ninh Bình, south of Hà Nội or Hanoi and half way to Hạ Long Bay.
When leaving Pù Luông mountains we drove by an astounding piece of craftsmanship and asked to stop and see it close up. It turns out the structures we had seen from the road were three gigantic waterwheels made 100% from bamboo.
Not a single nail or metal thing in them. We walked up to one of them and got to see how they worked.
Tied to the wheel are bamboo tubes in just the right length and tilted exactly so that they take water when submerged into each bamboo tube and dispose of the water on top of the wheel into a larger Bamboo tube that is then connected to a series of connected bamboo pipes, transporting the water in an open aqueduct like bamboo structure to the rice fields.
The pedals that drive the rotation are also made from Bamboo, but those approximately eight meters high wheels need to be constantly maintained and all bamboo parts are swapped out after two years, if they even last that long.
On we went as we had quite a drive in front of us that day. Driving down from the mountains onto the flatlands, we saw the agriculture work and fields changing. Whereas in the highlands the fields were mostly rice terraces and worked on with water buffalos or small hand held tractor like machines, down in the flat lands we saw more big tractors and other crops such as corn, sugar cane or cassava (also known as manioc).
Water buffalos can still be seen in many places here but while they still are used for farm work in steep areas, down in the flat lands they seem to be more for eating or buffalo fights rather than doing much field work.
After our lunch (Goat and quail for Chris, vegetables and rice for Esther) that wasn’t one of the best we had, we walked to a boat quay to board our Sampan for a tour through the largest wetland reserve in Vietnam.
Van Long Nature Reserve is home to countless types of water birds and carpets full of blossoming pink water lilies. It consists of vast areas of slow flowing water, reed forests and karst rock formations that are typical for Northern Vietnam. small canals have been kept open for the small sampan boats to be rowed through.
The water is shallow, only about one meter deep, and the sampans are flat bottomed bamboo boats lined with concrete on the inside. They can take only two passengers each as well as one rower. This area is also the last refuge of the most endangered species of primates called the Delacour’s Langurs. Once abundant in Northern Vietnam, those primates have been hunted by the locals to near extinction. Van Long reserve with the karst rock formations that provide the Langur’s home, protected by water is the last refuge of those monkeys. Only about 120 of them still live in the wild. We weren’t lucky enough to spot one in the dense forest that covered the rocks.
Nevertheless we saw some birds that we could not identify, while being rowed calmly through the countryside. Without another boat in sight it felt very remote and peaceful even though Chris was nearly despairing with the fuzzy light and the overcast sky.
90 minutes later, back at the quay, we were treated to an Italian Coffee there, well what they called an Italian coffee, that at least had some real milk in it. While drinking it, we noticed another one of those signs, that take a western word and simply spell it the Vietnamese way. That way Café becomes Ca Phé and auto becomes ô Tô.
In general we observed that there is no Vietnamese word longer than six letters. So they must chop words that we combine in German into multiple shorter words. It makes for sentences with very many words in them and you always need a context to understand the right meaning of the word. And then there is the pronounciation… you think you pronounce it the right way and still all the Vietnamese around you are bursting out laughing when they hear you say something like “cảm ơn rất nhiều” (Kamm uuhn dset nhoui) for “thank you very much”.
On we went to our last stop before the day was over. During the 17th century the Dinh dynasty was ruling Northern Vietnam and the kings made Hoa Lư their capital until it became too small and they moved it to Hanoi. Hoa Lư is surrounded by protective hills but has limited space to grow.
All what’s left of the dynasties remains are two temples that are nearly identical in layout but do have subtle differences. Bot have fish ponds inside their walls, both have a three tiered set up (first gate, second gate and then the temple). But they are dedicated to different people.
One is dedicated to the emperor king Đinh Tiên Hoàng and his three sons. Đinh Tiên Hoàng was very successful against the Chinese invaders and unifying the country. Unfortunately none of his three sons became his successor.
The second temple is dedicated to his successor, a general, the monarch Lê Đại Hành, who married the widow queen. Both temples were nicer to look at from the outside than the inside which was quite sinister . We even saw a fabled creature called a kỳ lân or Qilin, a type of Chinese / Vietnamese Unicorn.
And what would a Vietnam visit be without riding a real water buffalo? Of course Esther can’t resist to sit on any rideable four legged animal, and so she didn’t need to much convincing to hop onto a buffalo at the temples just for fun and a photo op.
On that hilarious note we finished our day, drove another 40 minutes and checked into our lovely hotel in Tam Cốc.
Not many western tourists make their way to PuLuong Reserve. They flock to Sapa in the very north western corner of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. Not only is Sapa known for their beautiful rice terraces, also motorcyclists love te curvy and beautiful country roads. As it’s 200+ kilometers from Hanoi, it takes a long time to drive there and when the weather forecast is not great (like it is for us), then you may only be cold, wet and miserable without a view.
We decided to visit Pù Luông Reserve instead, a hidden gem, only half that distance away from Hanoi and a popular vacation spot for the locals. In summer that is. So at the moment there aren’t many tourists at all going there.
We set out early again from Hanoi with Tam and Dong driving along a highway at first (with separate lanes only for scooter drivers) stopping several times for tea, buying oranges and mandarines and at a spot on a mointain pass usually famous for it’s sweeping vistas.
We were driving in clouds so thick that we could not see ten meters in front of us. What a pity. We kept driving over the pass, slowly passing lumbering trucks, hoping that their breakes will hold. We stopped at a viewpoint on the other side where the clouds were not as dense. At least here we could enjoy a nice surround view of a beautiful valley with a little town called Xuan Mai, where we had a delicious lunch.
We already have crossed into the Pù Luông Nature reserve and were amazed at how many little settlements and villages were located inside the nature reserve. Turns out many people of Thai origin were living here. Rice and fish farming are the two most observed activities here and everyone seemed to be out and about in the fields repairing, fishing, preparing the ground etc.
Lovely rice terraces line every corner of the valleys where possible and the fish ponds are full with Tilapia and Grass Carp. We stopped at a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Cars can’t go any further here and several scooter drivers are waiting for customers to drive them to the little village of Kho Mường.
We decided to walk of course, walking off some lunchtime calories. It is a 30 minute hike, mostly downhill to a small hidden away village at the end of a valley without exit on the other end nor any other road leading to it.
About 60 families live here in this very rural and picturesque setting. Houses are made of wood and are mostly on stilts. The space underneath the house is often used for storage or to house animals, while the upper floor is used for living quarters for the entire family. No house had more than one upper floor. The roofs are traditionally made with palm leaves, but as those need to be replaced every two years, corrugated iron roofs are used nowadays with a layer of palm leaves on top against the summer heat. Everything looks neat and tidy here. Kids playing on the little walkways, dogs and ducks running about, a very peaceful and idyllic looking village.
We walked further to the end of the valley, through rice fields where people were fishing with a small net for little fish and crabs until we came to the entrance of a huge cave mouth.
The Kho Muong Cave, home to four different species of bats and very deep. Without a local guide that knows where to go and has powerful flashlights, we cannot explore the cave by ourselves. Esther felt a bit sorry that we could not go inside. Chris was glad. we still had a 40 min walk back up to the car and it felt like a good exercise after all that sitting in the car. We drove further into the nature reserve to our overnight location.
We have booked a homestay in one of the hillside resorts and were wondering what a homestay meant for the Vietnamese. In Bhutan it meant staying with a local family and we had expected something similar here.
Well not quite. We are staying in the Puluong Resort, a mix between a hotel and a communal hut. While it has all the amenities of a regular hotel (Pool, Pool bar, Restaurant, souvenir shop) it also has some communal sleeping quarters for up to eight futons in one big room.
That’s where we were booked into. The first night we were alone here, the second night a German/Irish couple moved in with us. The whole resort is beautifully laid out and blends in perfectly with nature. All guest huts are on stilts with palm leaf roofs and so it does not feel like a big resort at all. There are also only a hand full of guests here at the moment. After check in and getting settled with a drink at the pool bar, we had dinner ( yes also very good food) and turned in quite early for the night.
Woken the next day by dripping rain and loud roosters claiming their space, we headed to breakfast which was a large buffett with more good things to eat…
The rain had dwindled to just a light drizzle and so we set out on foot with Tam, walking from the mountain side of the resort to the valley and the little villages we saw from above. Meticulously maintained rice terraces line the hillside, carp ponds are plentiful and we saw gaggles of ducks everywhere, happily splashing in the shallow flooded fields.
While everything looks so peaceful and enchanting, it must be a hard life with lots of farm work and not much income. We saw guest houses spring up in multiple places as roads that cars can drive on are being built, but many of the villages are still very small and hard to get to.
We hiked a few kilometers between rice fields and on little paths until we came to a small village that specialized in weaving beautiful and colorful scarves, blankets, table cloths etc. Esther bought a colorful table runner there which we for sure will use at home. The old lady weaving those was absoutely adorable and we did not even want to haggle here, knowing that she spent hours making it. We said our farewell in Vietnamese and the ladies giggled with laughter. Saying good bye, thank you or simply ‘Hi’ in Vietnamese always makes the locals laugh when we are trying to get the pronounciation right. We must sound very funny to their ears, but we are trying.
It was nearly lunchtime and it started to rain in earnest. Not nice hiking weather. We found a small shop serving tea and some sweet treats and hung out a bit waiting for the rain to lessen.
We were a long way from the resort and walking back in the pouring rain was not something we were looking forward to. Tam decided to call the driver Dong and we got picked up and driven back to the resort. Yes a bit of luxury , we know….
As the weather forecast claimed that it’ll be raining for the remainder of the day we decided after yet another yummy lunch, to just rest and relax, catch up on our blog entries, take a nap and read a bit.
We woke up fairly early again, as days start with pick up at 8 AM. We are in the middle of down town Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Already yesterday on the drive from the Airport, we noticed how different Hanoi is from Saigon. It is also bustling with people, cars and scooters but it somehow has preserved much more of an original atmosphere than Saigon. Maybe because many more of the original French architecture is still intact or because the streets are smaller and everything is closer together. We were in instant agreement that we like this city better.
First we visited the Ho Chi Minh Complex. Ho Chi Minh is the national hero of Vietnam who is being called the father the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having laid the foundations for both the defeat of the American forces as well as the reunification of Northern and Southern Vietnam. He died before both were accomplished but was credited with the mastermind behind the original plans.
All Vietnamese go on a pilgrimage to see Uncle Ho, as they lovingly call him, at least once during their life time. So we went to see uncle Ho as well. Unfortunately the mausoleum was closed that day, we could only see the outside, not the embalmed body inside. The Vietnamese say that Ho Chi Minh is only sleeping in there, not dead.
Once a year he gets transported for three months to Russia (Moscow) for an embalming update as they have experience with Lenin’s embalmed body there and are fellow communists. We were nevertheless able to see Ho Chi Minh’s house, the impressive presidential palace and botanical gardens that surround the Mausoleum.
By now Esther was craving a real cappuccino, as the hotel and most regular coffee shops here only serve the super strong Vietnamese style coffee. It’s many times stronger than an espresso and even with a lot of milk (they usually served condensed, sweetened milk) it’s hard to stomach. We stopped at a promising coffee place and indeed them made an excellent cappuccino. Esther was happy. Chris tried a local specialty: coffee with egg yolk. It actually tasted quite nice but was as rich as a dessert. Chris loving Tiramisu, said it tasted like one without the Mascarpone, alcohol and lady fingers and that egg yolk and coffee go together well.
Next stop on our Hanoi city tour was the temple of literature. A very impressive compound, consisting of 5 sections from the front entrance and court yard until a very large temple at the last court yard. Each separated by a set of entrance archways. This entire complex is dedicated to Confucius and his four scholars. It used to be the first university in Hanoi, fully dedicated to studying and learning. While we were pleasantly surprised how few tourists were at the Ho Chi Minh Complex, we were a bit put off at the number of tourists at the literature temple. I guess we are spoiled by the absence of people during our covid travels.
Locals tell us that the number of tourists is still far smaller than it was pre covid. Well one could not tell when visiting the temple. Esther decided that we’ll come back in a week in early morning, when we have another night and half day in Hanoi.
It was time for lunch now and we headed into the French quarter for a delicious multi course meal. Food is great here and always super fresh. So far we haven’t experienced anything that did not taste good. But the best was still to come. We are booked on a food tour through Hanoi in the evening. Right after lunch we decided to walk off our full bellies and to roam the crowded streets of Hanoi.
Each street seems to have a different motto, like the former guilds. The street of the leather workers, the street of the scooter repair shops, the street of the flowers, the street of the animals where poor song birds in cages and colorful fish for fishtanks are sold. In the street of sweets we bought dried, candied mango and we bought tea in the street of spices, herbs and medicines. Each street has it’s unique own smell.
We also (literally) crossed railway street and its railway tracks. The spot has become very famous through the internet, but is kind of closed for tourists now.
There are railway tracks running through a narrow alley between houses barely four feet away from the house fronts. The side walks are barely three feet wide and the train still rumbles through twice a day with up to 50 km/h. But since Instagram & Co made this experience go viral things got so out of control with foreign visitors posing on the tracks that the police closed off walking train street for tourists.
Now you have to have a personal invite from one of the house owners on train street to walk that section. Needless to say that we managed to get invited to one of the houses turned coffee shop in the back. It was a weird feeling to be so close to the tracks, even crossing them twice as there is nothing like anywhere we have been. We enjoyed the special atmosphere here with a yummy passionfruit juice drink and watched the police and the locals chasing ‚invited‘ guest from the tracks. They are keen on keeping their license.
On we went and hopped on a bicycle rickshaw to bring us to the water puppet theater. What a great mistake! Not the theater – but the rickshaw… Instead of the nice small alleys we saw in the French Quarter our driver decided to take only the main roads, crammed full with scooters and cars so it felt like we were breathing in only exhaust fumes while moving at a snails pace. Just as most of the people on the scooters we put on our facemask. Well we’ll certainly not repeat that experience. 45 minutes later we were so glad to arrive at the theater.
We were curious what the water puppet theater was and Chris was a little bit concerned about it being so touristy with up to five performances a day. But then we spent an hour watching an enchanting yet so strange performance. Wooden puppets are being moved from behind a screen in a pool of water telling different stories.
It’s similar to what we know as Kasperletheater and Marionettentheater just with puppets in water placed on a submerged stick. Hanoi has a very long tradition of water puppetry and to watch it was quite extraordinary. I am glad we went even though we did not understand any of the talking or singing and the music accompanying it sounds strange and somewhat lamenting to western ears.
After the theater we freshened up a bit in our hotel and the headed out for a highlight of our stay in Hanoi. Our street food tour. This we’ll cover on our food blog entry.