February 2016 Travel Report: Tombs, Caves and Islands
As we all know, February is the shortest month of the year. It was even shorter for me this year though, as I hibernated in Hoi An for a couple of weeks to escape the black hole that is Tet (Vietnamese New Year). Buses and trains overflow with commuting locals and everything gets expensive — another lazy holiday (which involved lots of writing) in Hoi An was a far better option than dealing with Tet troubles. The rest of the month was much busier. Gia visited once again and together we explored tombs, caves and quiet country roads in Vietnam before popping over to Laos to spend some time on Don Det, a relaxing little island in the Mekong River.
Hoi An during Tet
I’ve spent a lot of time in Hoi An over the last few months and I’d say it’s the best place to be if you find yourself in Vietnam during Tet. Prices don’t increase too much and there are always plenty of accommodation options. The only downside is that it does get flooded with tourists, mostly from Vietnam and other nearby countries.
History in Hue
Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Between 1802 and 1945 a series of emperors ruled over their land (sort of) while building elaborate palaces and tombs. We had one full day to check out as many of them as we could. We started off at the Imperial Citadel, which is described as sprawling just about every time someone writes about it. I won’t say it’s sprawling, but it does take the best part of a morning to look around. The highlights of the Imperial Citadel are the gates — some have been well preserved and some still have bullet holes from intense fighting during the Vietnam/American War. They all feature whirlwinds of colour and detail though and it’s worth walking through the whole site to discover them all.
The imperial tombs are the other big tourist attractions in Hue. The word ‘tomb’ doesn’t do these places justice at all though — they are more like palaces and are just as worthwhile (in an architectural sense) as the Imperial Citadel. We visited 3 tombs (Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh).
Caves and mountains in Phong Nha
King Kong invaded the tiny tourist town of Phong Nha while we were there. Parts of the new movie (due for release in 2017) are being shot in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a wild wilderness full of caves, rivers and limestone mountains. Paradise Cave was out of this world — the stalagmites / stalactites and other geological formations (can you tell I’m not a scientist…?) have created an alien world which is illuminated by subtle(ish) lighting. Phong Nha Cave isn’t quite as in your face with its surrealness but the fact that you get taken through it in a boat makes for a unique experience. The countryside throughout this area is well suited to the big screen — it’s no surprise that this area was chosen to portray Skull Island. From Phong Nha we crossed the border into Laos and headed down to an area known as the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don).
Relaxing on Don Det (4000 Islands)
Don Det was an absolute highlight of my first big trip 4 years ago and I had wanted to return ever since. The days are long and lazy, the food is cheap (and may or may not make you sick) and the sunsets are top drawer. We also crossed a bridge to Don Khon, where we saw a waterfall and some rare Irrawaddy dolphins. If you’re thinking of visiting Southeast Asia make sure you try and get to Don Det — it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere but if you’re anything like me then you won’t regret it.
The plan for March
I’m writing this from the deck of a luxury river boat as it floats along the Mekong River. From here we’ll be crossing over into Thailand — beaches, ruins and monkeys will keep us busy for the first half of March, the second half is still a mystery.
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