We were in Hanoi, finally. Vietnam had eluded us on three past trips to SE Asia and we were finally here. So now what? We hadn’t done much research as we had planned to visit the Philippines but a change of plans landed us in Vietnam and we were so excited.
Sitting in the hotel one day, we both took to Google for some research and planning. What exactly was there to do besides the usual plane/train/bus hopping from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An to Saigon? While there are plenty of things to do in Vietnam, we wanted an adventure, something different, something that would take us into the heart of Vietnam and show us the beautiful country, not just it’s cities.
That day we stumbled upon the Buffalo Run. I know what you are thinking, some crazy, mad people that take you running through rice fields with water buffalos or perhaps you’re supposed to ride a buffalo through Vietnam? I guess I wasn’t sure what to expect either when I clicked that link but I was pleasantly surprised when it led me to a 7 day overland trip covering the 990km between Hanoi and Hoi An through the back country of Vietnam. It was fate, we had found what we were looking for.
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Cuc Phuong National Park
The tour started from the happening Hanoi Backpackers hostel in the heart of the Old Quarter and rolled out early (7:30am) on the first day taking us straight to Cuc Phuong National Park where we dove head first into the adventures.
Cuc Phuong National Park is located 120km southwest of Hanoi and is the countries oldest national park. It is a true jungle with intense flora and exotic fauna around every corner and is home to the Primates Endangered Rescue Center that houses over 150 primates that they have rescued and are rehabilitating for a return to the jungle.
Following lunch at the entrance to the park, we selected our mountain bikes and headed off into the depths of the park via a single lane paved road. This path took us on a windy, twisty, butt-crunching ride through the park. There are many hills and turns so it proved to be a good workout and took us a solid 4 hours to reach the visitors center in the middle of the park where we spent the first night.
Along the way we visited a 7500 year old prehistoric cave that involved a hike with many stairs into the jungle, before returning and continuing our ride. Our accommodation in the jungle was an old building that acts as dormitory’s for the many researchers that frequent the park. We widdled the night away with lots of beer and an obnoxious number of Uno card rounds. The tour usually offers a night safari but we had torrential down pours and opted to pass and turn in for some rest after an exciting day.
Day 2 found us heading down the Ho Chi Minh trail, the secret route that assisted Vietcong troops in moving soldiers and supplies between the North and Saigon during the American war. The route has an eerie presence as we stopped to explore some of the bomb craters and erected temples to commemorate the people who lost their lives during the war bombings.
The drive to our next stop gave us time to contemplate the Ho Chi Minh trail before arriving at the beautiful Trang An for lunch and an afternoon of being rowed around by a tiny lady with arms of steel through the caves and temples of the park. Trang An has 31 valleys, 48 caves and it has some caves with 2000m of length. Following our visit to Trang An we made our way into a town where we had dinner and were given the option to shower and relax at a hotel before boarding a sleeper bus to Phong Nha.
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Riding a sleeper bus is always an adventure and we arrived in Phong Nha with little sleep. Luckily, we were able to check in early to our hotel and had a chance to freshen up before getting breakfast and heading straight out for the days adventure. On the itinerary was a visit to the famed Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park that is located in north-central Vietnam. The park is loaded with natural wonders and a diverse system of caves, some over four million years old. The park was named an UNESCO site in 2003 and is home to the world’s largest cave, Paradise Cave that was discovered in 2005 only.
Our visit to Paradise Cave was awe-inspiring and out of this World. The cave runs a total of 31km with tall ceilings and wide paths with some spectacular forming of limestone stalactites and stalagmites. Some even take recognizable shapes of a rat, elephant and a fallen leaning tower of Pisa. The climb to the caves is steep with many stairs, another adventure and another workout.
Following our caving adventure we headed to a jungle path where we hiked deep into the jungle to enjoy a riverside picnic lunch against some of the fullest and lushest jungle scenery we have ever seen. A 20-minute hike followed our lunch to a hidden swimming hole. This stop was magical, wild and desolate. We loved every single minute of it and it was a definite highlight of the trip.
The DMZ, Vinh Moc Tunnels and Hue
Day 4 was a much needed slow day as we ventured into the DMZ area from the American war. Everything in this area is a history lesson on the art of war and the effects it has on the nations involved. The DMZ is the official line between North and South Vietnam and runs 100km east to west across the country. This area saw the most action during the war and you can still see the imprints in the ground from the bombings.
The Vinh Moc tunnels are a system of tunnels that were hand dug by the local villagers during the war to provide safety and survival from the bombings. The people took to the underground city where they made wells, kitchens and family rooms to continue their way of life while their homes were destroyed above. The tunnel systems are intense, narrow and go on for many kilometers.
We then visited the Mine Action Visitors Center in Dong Ha to have a look at the museum and learn about the efforts to demine the area. The effects of war are brutal and great effort is put forth to continue clearing the area of live, unexploded bombs. Seeing the effects of war that close is a humbling experience and a great way to understand the effects war has on both sides of the line. Our afternoon continued with a trip into the imperial citadel of Hue. We spent the afternoon walking the imperial city and relaxing in the hostel.
Hue Beach Day
After hoofing it across the country we were in for a much needed slow day. We had a nice sleep in before departing the hostel at 11am, just in time for it to start down pouring. We drove to the tallest Pagoda in Vietnam but opted to pass on getting out of the car as the rain was dizzying.
We headed straight out to the private beach resort where we spent the day relaxing under the thatched bungalow covers from the rain and just enjoying the ocean as it crashed against the shore. We enjoyed fruit smoothies and a fresh seafood BBQ for lunch, it was a beautiful relaxing day that ended back in Hue just in time for the Halloween parties in the street!
I think it is easy to say you haven’t really visited Vietnam until you have taken to the tiny back roads on two wheels. So this is exactly what we did on day 6 and it was one of the most amazing moments we have had in our travels. Our trip would take us 80 miles between the imperial city of Hue and the sleepy center of Hoi An with a chance to take in the back country in between.
The first half of the day took us through the back country and the jungle, through tiny villages. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and had the bright sun shining down on us the whole way. The biggest highlight was coming across a giant snake on the road and then watching a local farmer spend 15 minutes chasing and capturing it, live in the rice paddies it fled into. It was an eye-popping experience.
Lunch was served in another remote riverside location where we swam in the crystal clear water and dozed in the shade of a bamboo cover deep in the jungle. The Buffalo Run takes you to places you only see in the magazines, it is incredible. The afternoon took us through Hai Van pass with mountain, ocean and beach scenery into the crazy busy streets of Danang.
After a solid 8-9 hours, we finally arrived in Hoi An around 6pm with time to get checked in at the hostel, enjoy a shower and happy hour beer before taking a night walk into the city for a street side dinner of the famous Cau Lao.
Get Out There and Explore Vietnam
If it is adventure you seek, look no further. This trip is all that and more with a jam packed adventure itinerary that blends the history and culture of Vietnam into one of the best experiences of your life. It’s a tall order and it delivers.
The trip is available only through Vietnam Backpackers and can be booked at either of their hostels in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. $450 will get you a 7 day adventure with accommodation, transport, tours and food through the heart of Northern Vietnam. Plus, you could get the chance to spend an amazing 7 days with THIS guy: