We arrived into Da Nang after a short but slightly unnerving early morning flight from Hanoi. The flight took off in a huge thunderstorm making for a rather turbulent start to the journey, although thankfully the second half of the flight was much calmer and we arrived in one piece.
The third largest city in Vietnam, Da Nang is known for its long stretches of sandy beaches. Given this, we decided to head straight to the beach after quickly checking into our hotel. We took a taxi to My Khe Beach which stretches for 20 miles along the eastern side of the city. After arriving at the beach, we wandered across the soft white sand before hiring some sun loungers from Viet Sin.
After taking a bus south from Cat Ba, we arrived into Ninh Bình, a rural province known for its natural beauty and important cultural sites. It was a long journey, and by the time we arrived at our hotel it was late. We therefore decided on an early night, in preparation for a busy day of exploring.
With the main attractions spread out across the region, we decided to hire a motorbike from our hotel. This gave us more freedom to explore, and a chance to experience Vietnam’s preferred mode of transport.
We jumped on our Honda bike, and after a quick practice on some quieter streets, made our way to our first stop at Trang An. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trang An is known as the Halong Bay of Land, with a lush green landscape of tall mountains surrounded by water.
The most popular way to explore the area is with one of three scenic boat tours. We had timed our visit with a Vietnamese public holiday, and despite arriving early, there was a long queue to board the small rowing boats. Eventually it was our turn, and we climbed aboard our boat, along with two other passengers.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay was high on our list of things to do when visiting Vietnam. The vast bay has over 1,600 islands and inlets, and is therefore best viewed by boat. With more than 200 different cruises available, there was an almost overwhelming choice of tours to choose from. After lots of research on the different boats and itineraries, we opted for the Lan Ha Legend, which is aimed at couples and families, and is reasonably priced.
We decided on a two day/one night itinerary, with this giving us the opportunity to cruise through Halong Bay and stay overnight in the quieter but equally impressive neighbouring Lan Ha Bay.
The tour included a transfer from Hanoi, and we were picked up early from our hotel before beginning the three hour journey south. We took a short vehicle ferry across to Cat Ba Island, before continuing to Gia Luan wharf, where the cruise was to begin.
Despite the thick grey clouds, we were immediately struck by the beauty of our surroundings, with huge limestone mountains rising out of the water as far we could see. It was easy to see why Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions.
Our next stop in Vietnam was in the capital of Hanoi, which is located in the north of the country. After a two hour flight and short taxi journey we arrived into the busy Old Quarter, which is where our hotel was located. This historic area is the city’s main commercial hub, as well as being very popular with tourists.
Despite Hanoi being slightly smaller than Ho Chi Minh City, it certainly didn’t feel any quieter. As we stepped out of our hotel to explore, we were immediately surrounded by an overwhelming mix of scooters, cars, hawkers and pedestrians.
For our last day before leaving Ho Chi Minh City, we decided to arrange a trip to the Mekong Delta. The region is located at the southern tip of Vietnam, and is where the Mekong River’s complex network of distributaries empty into the Gulf of Thailand.
We arranged the full day tour through A Travel Mate, having been impressed by the very positive reviews on Trip Advisor. After being picked up early outside of our hotel, we collected several other guests from their considerably fancier accommodation, before heading out of the city. In total there was six of us for one guide, which made for an ideal sized group.
Our guide gave us lots of information on the region during the two hour drive south. The Mekong Delta is known as the rice bowl of Vietnam, with its unique geography and climate providing ideal growing conditions for rice as well as many other different crops.
Our first stop of the day was at the Vinh Trang Pagoda, which is just on the outskirts of My Tho, and is one of the largest and most well known pagodas in the south of Vietnam. In total there are five different buildings, with these surrounded by over two acres of elaborate gardens.
Our time in Vietnam started with four nights in Ho Chi Minh City, which is also commonly known by its former name of Saigon. The vast city is the largest in Vietnam, with a population of over 8 million people.
After leaving the airport by taxi, we were immediately introduced to Vietnam’s infamous roads. It was almost mesmerising to watch as an endless row of scooters weaved in and out of the traffic around us, travelling in every direction possible, while still managing not to collide. Although entertaining, it was relief when we eventually arrived safely at our hotel.
For a rather sobering start to our time in Vietnam, we visited the War Remnants Museum which is located within District 3 of the city. Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, it provides a brutal account of the effects of the Vietnam War on the country’s population. After viewing the various US armoured vehicles and weapons that surround the building, we made our way inside where the rest of the exhibits are spread over three floors.
After our brief visit to Taichung, we continued our journey along the west coast of Taiwan to the port city of Kaohsiung, which is located in the south of island. Our journey to Kaohsiung took considerably longer than expected, with a mixup at the ticket counter leading to us taking the local train. Although considerably cheaper, the train stopped seemingly every five minutes, and almost doubled our journey time to over four hours.
After eventually arriving, we took a short ride on the city’s metro to the impressive Formosa Boulevard Station, which was just a short walk from our hotel. Located in the centre of the station’s concourse is the beautiful Dome of Light art instillation. This is made up of 4,500 glass panels, making it the largest glass work in the world.
The next stop on our journey though Taiwan was in Taichung, which is the country’s second largest city with a population of almost three million. The city is located on the west coast of Taiwan, and is just a short train journey from the capital Taipei.
With less than 24 hours in the city we quickly set about exploring. Our first stop was for a bubble tea at Chun Shui Tang. The popular drink is a Taiwanese obsession, with stalls selling it on almost every corner. Also commonly referred to as pearl milk tea, the drink is made by combining iced tea, milk and chewy tapioca balls, and is available in every flavour combination imaginable.
Although Chun Shui Tang now has over 90 stores, we visited the original Taichung store where it is believed the drink was invented in 1987. I tried a mango flavour tea, while Rachael went with the even more unusual Oreo flavour. Both were delicious and also very sweet!
After leaving Japan behind, our next destination was Taiwan, where we would be spending a total of six nights. As one of the less travelled countries on our itinerary, we were unsure what to expect, and excited to see what we would discover.
It was a long journey to Taiwan, including a delayed flight, and it was late afternoon by the time we arrived at our hotel in the capital Taipei. We were staying in the lively Ximending neighbourhood, which seemed much like a smaller version of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. The busy streets were lined with high end shopping malls, restaurants and bars.
In need of some dinner, we wandered to nearby Huaxi Night Market. Night markets are extremely popular in Taiwan, opening late into the night and offering the opportunity to eat, stop and socialise all in one place.
Although the main covered section of the market is small, it spills out onto the surrounding streets, with a huge variety of food and other goods on offer. We sampled a number of delicious items, although with very few English menus it was quite a challenge to figure out exactly what we were eating.
After taking the Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto, we arrived into the grand Tokyo Station. It was a smooth journey, and although the cost was high, it was incredibly impressive especially when you are used to London Midland trains.
We had a relatively relaxing first evening in the city, enjoying yet more great ramen from a small, hidden away shop in the Ginza district, before having an early night.
The following morning we were out early in the hope of catching a Sumo wrestling practice session. There are only six Grand Sumo tournaments held each year, however fighters have to practice the complex art almost daily. We visited the Arashio-Beya stable, and joined a small crowd watching through the large window as the fighters completed their practice routines.
We followed this with a visit to Tsukiji market where we grabbed a quick breakfast, before taking the bus to Odaiba, the waterfront district to the city’s east. Here we visited teamLab Borderless, which is recognised as the world’s first digital art museum.
The attraction has built up a large following on social media, and despite arriving just before the 10am opening time, there was already a large queue forming. Thankfully we had preordered our tickets, which did shorten the waiting time. As we reached the front, we were given a brief introduction to the museum. The instillations are designed to form one borderless world (hence the name), and there is no guide or map. Visitors are invited to explore the huge site in whatever order they choose.
We began our journey through the incredibly colourful instillations, which was quite unlike anything we had ever experienced before. This included a maze of colourful lightbulb shaped balloons, that we had to navigate through.