South East Asia: a month on the road

Southeast Asia – a cocktail of fascinating culture, heavenly food, and postcard-perfect scenery – is a destination brimming with endless spots just waiting to be explored. Consisting of eleven countries, which stretch from Southeast India to China, Southeast Asia can provide every traveller with a diverse experience depending on the destinations and routes they choose to take.

For my sister and I, one-month of travelling was our time limit. This allowed us to visit Thailand and Vietnam, staying in each for 2 weeks. Now I know a WHOLE month may sound like a long time, but in a backpacker’s world this is no time at all! So, what we quickly learnt when planning our trip was that it’s best to visit less countries and explore them more thoroughly, rather than trying to visit as many places as possible and spending all of our time travelling between them. In this blog, I’ll describe our journey, where we went, and how we got to and from each place.

Thailand

Bangkok

Our journey started in Bangkok, Thailand – a built up city filled with buzzing traffic, delicious street food stalls, and an energetic night life. We began by flying into Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of Bangkok’s two international airports. We only stayed there for 2 nights, due to the recommendations of friends who told us they didn’t like Bangkok. So, on the assumption that we’d feel the same, we only stayed there briefly. This was a mistake. We soon realised that travellers’ opinions are subjective, because we loved Bangkok, and as city lovers it offered all we could’ve wanted: tonnes of cute cafés, restaurants serving amazing Thai food, an awesome range of bars with a great night life, and an electrifying hustle and bustle of people (this is what the majority of Bangkok haters don’t like). Unfortunately, the hostel we stayed in wasn’t what we were hoping for. We stayed in Sloth Hostel, situated just a 5-minute walk from the infamous Khao San Road. I would recommend this hostel if you are looking for friendly staff, breakfast included in the room price, and a quiet and more chilled atmosphere.

One thing to always check when staying in hostels is the check-in and check-out times (check-in is usually between 12-2pm and check-out between 9am-11am). If your arrival or departure times don’t work too well with the check-in/out times, hostels are pretty good at accommodating guests’ needs by offering somewhere for them to hang out until their rooms are ready. Hostels also tend to have a luggage room or area in which you can leave your bags while you kill time by exploring your new destination. My sister and I never had any problems when leaving our luggage and we found it to be pretty safe. However, you leave your belongings at your own risk, and hostels do not take responsibility for any damage or loss.

Chiang Mai

After our short stop in Bangkok, we caught a Grab taxi (via the Grab app) to the train station and then took a night train to Chiang Mai. We booked our train on the 12Go Asia website, on which you can book all types of travel around Southeast Asia. We found that we preferred the ‘no plan is the best plan’ approach (again, just personal preference), so booked all our travel tickets about a day or two in advance via the 12Go Asia website or at the check-in desks of most hostels (when travelling in peak backpacking seasons, make sure to book a little more in advance, as hostels fill up quicker).

6am. I woke to the mechanical, yet gentle, rocking of the train as it moved swiftly through the Thai countryside. The 13-hour journey was nearly over, and I’d actually enjoyed myself a lot more than anticipated; the bed was the comfiest I’d had, we met some lovely people, and the journey felt just a few hours because of sleeping through the majority of it. At 7am, we arrived in Chiang Mai and took a songthaew – a red truck which is like a communal taxi – for 50 Bhat each, to our next hostel. These trucks wait just outside the train station, so you can hop straight in one when you step outside.

Our hostel was called Jungala House, which we booked through the Hostel World app, and we stayed in a double room for 11 Bhat a night. This place was less of a hostel, however, as it was a complex of shared rooms with no real social area. We found the rooms to be basic, broken and dirty, however, it was all that we needed, and we found it to be sufficient for just sleeping in. Despite the lack of cleanliness, the location we stayed in was perfect! Situated in the Old City, a budget and backpacker friendly segment of Chiang Mai, we were plentifully surrounded by restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, and temples. As well as an infinite variety of day trips, sight-seeing adventures, and guided tours that can be booked from any hostel or small tourist shop throughout the city.

Pai

Following our stay in Chiang Mai, we headed North to Pai – an Asian version of, what I can only describe as, a small hippy-like Western town. We travelled here by minibus, via the 12GoAsia app website. In short, the journey was a 3-hour corkscrew through the Northern Thai mountains, with enough twists and turns to make pretty much anyone feel sick. So, if you get travel sick, DEFINITELY take a travel sickness pill!

We fell in love with Pai. Whether we were admiring the stunning view from Pai Canyon, swimming in waterfalls, or visiting a rabbit café…that’s right, A CAFÉ FULL OF RABBITS…we we’re blissfully aware of our hearts pleading with us to make Pai our home. We stayed in a 12-bed dorm, in The Famous Circus Hostel, for £5.74 per night (per person). When first arriving in Pai, you can call the hostel and they’ll pick you up for free in their ‘taxi’ (or, as we liked to call it, a rickety motorbike side cart). This hostel was an experience in itself, with the majority of people being on some kind of drug and fabulously flinging a rug, hula hoop, or flaming torch around in the air. This was something that my sister and I found both hilarious and captivating, as we don’t get involved with either activity, so often found ourselves laughing at some weird, yet wonderful, behaviours. The “chilled” ((holds up fingers in a peace sign)) vibe was something we didn’t mind, however if you aren’t the type to feel comfortable in these environments then this hostel isn’t for you.

Chiang Mai

As our final Thai destination, we popped back to Chiang Mai for a few days, where we waited for our flight out to Hanoi, Vietnam. We booked the return minibus to Chiang Mai through our hostel’s reception, just one day prior to leaving. Once back in Chiang Mai, we stayed in Mad Monkey Hostel for around £6 each. We found this hostel to be slightly quiet, as it was undergoing construction, but felt as though it would be a lively scene during peak season.

On the day of our flight, we caught a Grab taxi (via the Grab app) to the airport, from which we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Vietnam

Hanoi

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Arriving in Vietnam was, unfortunately, more stressful than expected. Despite feeling prepared for how we would fund our travels through the country, we found ourselves stuck in the airport for hours because of not being about to withdraw any money from the airport cashpoints. Finally, we realised this was because we were trying to withdraw too much at once – the most you can withdraw is 2,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (VNG), which is £68.25, so we ended up having to make multiple transactions throughout our time in the country.

Once we’d figured out the Vietnamese cash machines, after hours of stressing and nearly bursting into tears, we made our way out of the airport exit towards the bus stops, situated just outside the doors. For 35,000 VND we got on a bus to the Centre, where we’d booked into the hostel Central Backpackers Original. I advise, however, staying in Central Backpackers Downtown (the sister hostel) for a livelier social scene and an actual communal area. The cost to stay in both of these includes breakfast…which is always a bonus.

Exploring Hanoi, for my sister and I, wasn’t our favourite. Unlike all of the love-struck descriptions of Hanoi that we’d heard, we found the city to be overwhelming and suffocating, and its people to be aggressively pushy. The first Vietnamese people we spoke to were two women selling food – they forced items into our hands, taking our phones to capture the moment, and then refused to let us leave (by physically holding our arms) without buying anything. On top of this, the heavens opened, releasing an outpouring of torrential rain, which turned our ‘leisurely wander’ into a battle to see 5 meters in front of us.

On returning to our hostel, we booked a trip out to Ha Long Bay – a world heritage site, consisting of 1,696 stunning rock formations scattered throughout Vietnam’s breath-taking northern sea – which I would absolutely recommend visiting. The trip we booked was called the ‘Hideaway Tour’ and cost £70 each for 2 days and 1 night. This price covered all transport, food, and accommodation. The tour began with a 2-hour coach, a short boat ride, and another 40-minute coach. You then reach the Hideaway Boat, on which you sail around the majestic islands of Ha Long Bay, enjoy a buffet style lunch, and meet your fellow islanders for the night. After a few hours of jumping from the decks into the pristine waters and exploring an isolated island beach (if you fancy the challenge of swimming from the boat), you are taken to a private island, which becomes your home for the night. Following an ‘island party’, the next morning offers a guided kayaking trip into the bay, allowing you to explore, for yourself, the mighty limestone pillars which make Ha Long such a famous tourist attraction. After this, and not to mention another awesome buffet lunch, we headed back to Hanoi.

On recommendation of our fellow islanders, who all came from Central Backpackers Downtown, we booked into their hostel for one final night in Hanoi. This was 10 times better than Central Backpackers Original. The following day, we booked tickets for a 10-hour night bus to Phong Nah, scheduled for a 6pm departure which ended up being 7pm. We booked and paid for these at the hostel’s reception, with the transport costing roughly £19 each.

Phong Nha

Arriving at 5am, despite the disorientation from having just woken up, was so exciting! We stepped off the bus into the welcoming warmth of the dark night and headed for our hostel, East Tiger. This hostel is unlike any others we stayed in – you won’t find it online or via apps like Hostel World. It’s only through word of travelling mouths that their email address is passed around, by which you can contact them to book a bed. Easy Tiger was the one and only hostel recommended to us by everyone we met that’d already been to Phong Nha. And, like those we met, I would undoubtedly persuade anyone travelling there to book into this hostel. Double beds, hammocks, swimming pools, hostel dogs, bicycle and motorbike rentals, information talks, organised tours, on site kitchen, on site bar, drink happy hours, pool table, live music…you name it, Easy Tiger has it. What more could you want? Email easytigerphongnha@gmail.com for booking requests.

Phong Nha itself is another level of cool, with both beauty and quirkiness appearing side by side to offer an unusually unique experience. Whether you’re interested in visiting awe-inspiring caves, riding motorbikes through the emerald-leaved mountains of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park or visiting a duck farm and a buffalo named Donald Trump, you’ll want to give yourself a few days to explore. I’d recommend staying no less than 2 days, but no more than 4. Bicycle and motorbikes are available to hire from Easy Tiger Hostel at a very cheap price and will be your main form of transport around Phong Nha. Motorbikes cost 90,000 VND (£3) to rent for half a day and 150,000 VND (£5) for a full day. An option of hiring an ‘easy rider’ is also there for those who don’t want to drive a motorbike but would like to ride on the back of one with an experienced driver.

Before moving on, I can’t skip mentioning my favourite café – The Bamboo Café. Make sure you visit this little gem! It’s just across the street from Easy Tiger Hostel, serving amazing coffee and food, as well as being a completely plastic free establishment. My sister and I visited with friends on multiple occasions, as we loved it so much.

The night before leaving, we booked a 4-hour bus to Hue for the next day. We booked this from Lynn’s Homestay, just a 2-minute walk down the road from Easy Tiger, due to Easy Tiger not offering transport bookings.

Hue

Hue, located 430 miles south of Hanoi and in the centre of Vietnam, was the previous capital city between the years of 1803 and 1945. Richly laced with history, Hue is recognised as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization). Unfortunately, due to sickness, my sister and I didn’t get to explore the city at all. Instead, we were bed ridden for 3 days and, by the time we felt better, we had to move on so we would stay on schedule and not miss our flights home. During this time, we stayed in Khe Sanh Homestay (booked via Hostel World) – run by the most hospitable and accommodating people we’d met. We were even offered complimentary fruit and jasmine tea on arrival! From what we found, instead of the usual abundance of hostels, homestays were in the majority throughout Hue.

Hai Van Pass (from Hue to Hội An)

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Travelling to Hoi An was an adventure in itself. And what an adventure it was. After hiring some ‘easy riders’ from our accommodation, we set off on a day long journey down the infamous Hai Van Pass (as seen on the British show ‘Top Gear’) to reach the quaint city of Hội An. We were driven by experienced motorbike drivers, who took both us and our backpacks, stopping off at multiple viewpoints, activities, and food stops along the way.
The journey cost 38 US Dollars, which included entry fees to some stop off points – the Elephant Springs and Marble Mountains. If you are a solo traveller, I suggest finding someone/some people to do this journey with. There will undoubtedly be others making the same trip as you, so you’d easily find them by just asking around your homestay. It would still be amazing on your own, I don’t doubt that, but having people to share the excitement with, having company at the stop off points, and just being able to enjoy the experience with someone else, makes the trip that little bit more enjoyable (in my opinion). My sister and I planned to go together but ended up in a group of 6. It was the best thing we did!

Hội An

Without a doubt, Hội An, which translates to “peaceful meeting place”, was my favourite stop in Vietnam. Arriving there was an enchanting experience, with the well-preserved ancient town offering a captivating fusion of history and diverse cultural architecture, due to its previous role as a major trading port between the 15th and 19th Century. This town’s former life resulted in its current mixture of colonial French buildings, Vietnamese tube houses, traditional Chinese-style temples and wooden shophouses, and the well-known and well-loved Japanese Covered Pagoda Bridge. Interviewed amongst all this, canals snake their way through the town in a stunningly obtrusive style, encouraging by-passers to take to the water via canal boats. And at night, the liquid mirror transforms into a stream of coloured light, as lanterns flood the streets and waters.

For our time in Hội An, we stayed in the Sunflower Hostel. We found the rooms to be our least favourite of all hostels we stayed in, however the lively social areas and free buffet-style breakfast made up for what the bedrooms lacked.

During your stay in Hội An, be sure to try the local dishes. Cao lầu, wontons, bahn xeo, and white rose dumplings (banh bao vac) are just a few mouth-watering options. Visit Hội An Deli Café & Restaurant for an unbeatable Cao Lau (a unique noodle dish with sweet chewy noodles, pork, crackling, fresh greens and herbs). Another must-see attraction, specific to Hội An, is the night market. This is no ordinary market. This is the most beautiful market you will ever see. With streets and canals brimming with traditional Vietnamese lanterns, you’ll feel as though you’re walking through a scene from the Disney movie ‘Tangled’ (google ‘Tangled lantern scene’ if you have no clue what I’m talking about). Trust me you won’t regret it.

One thing I must add is that I found Hội An to be a strange place in the late evenings. Markets and shops close early, locals go home or disappear, and the streets become eerily quiet. Please be vigilant at these times. Lone tourists can become vulnerable, and reports of motorbike muggings have been made at these hours. After warnings about this from hostel staff and fellow backpackers, my sister and I chose to get a taxi home from the night market. This cost us 25,000 VND (under £1), which we bartered for on recommendation of our hostel staff who told us that it should cost 20,000-30,000 VND. With all this said, no one we met had any bad experiences.

Ho Chi Minh City

Skipping the majority of Southern Vietnam, we travelled from Hội An to Ho Chi Minh City. However, to get to the nearest airport in Da Nang, we had to get a 30-minute taxi. We booked this at the Sunflower Hostel reception for roughly 11 USD. Our flight from Da Nang was 1 hour and cost us £50 (which we booked only a few days prior).

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh, we were met by an effervescent whirlwind of life. Hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes lurched down the streets in a blurred cry of honking horns and revving engines, whilst crowds of people filled the bustling pavements of the stuffy-aired city. With such a stark contrast to Hội An’s gentle demeanour, I was surprised by Ho Chi Minh’s modern and ‘westernised’ appearance, with its tall skyscrapers and fancy glass front shops reminding me of London. However, a pleasant satisfaction came from knowing this mean the city has a lot to offer. Museums, markets, cafés, restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, temples, churches…the list goes on.

Our accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 was disappointing and I’d highly recommend not following in our footsteps. We chose Vietnam Guide Home, which was extremely quiet, had no social area, and the bedrooms smelt like mould. We booked this via the Hostel World app. Reaching our hostel was easy, however, with a bus stopping just outside the airport exit. A bus ticket cost 20,000 VND (67p). There is a short walk to the hostel from the nearest bus stop, which we navigated by the help of Maps.me. Again, I would not recommend staying in this hostel, but would suggest staying in another hostel in the same area.

Leaving for the airport was both familiar and surreal. Due to getting so many flights over the past month, it just felt normal. Yet, knowing it was taking us back to England was the strangest sensation. We ordered a grab taxi via the Grab app and it cost 84,000 VND. The taxi driver tried to charge us an extra 15,000 on arrival, due to accidentally driving through a car park and being charged. You should know that, once you get into a Grab Taxi, drivers cannot charge you extra money because of the price being arranged at the start of the trip. You can refuse to pay any additional costs, as we did, and the driver has no right to make you pay it.

After two flights, we reached England. Cold and mundane…but we were full of excitement. Excited to share our stories. Excited to plan more trips. And excited to explore our home city with the new found curiosity that we never knew we’d come home with.

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Thailand and Vietnam are amazing. I beg you, put them on your bucket list. You won’t regret it.

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