VIETNAM: THE BUFFALO RUN TOUR





07.17



After months of deliberation, I finally packed my 40 litre rucksack and said a nervous goodbye to my family, in anticipation of the year of solo travel ahead. As I boarded flight VN 54 from London to the Vietnamese capital Hà Nội and got ready for the 11 hour journey, I wondered if I was brave, or simply stupid.



Arriving at 4am amidst a torrential storm, I headed for the Old Quarter located directly in the thick heat of the inner metropolis. A city full of life, the modern day capital is a jungle of tropical plantlife, wild dogs, squawking cockerels, mouth watering street food and historically, a profound spirit of freedom. As I climbed from my taxi, a heady wave of humidity washed over me like a tsunami. Around me tall banana trees billowed and curled around French colonial balustrades and bountiful terraced gardens, and down below, rusty motorbikes loaded with dragonfruit, live ducks and entire families dashed by chaotically.



On my first full day in Hà Nội I decided to enrol on the Buffalo Run tour, which began with an introduction from our aptly named “little tour guide” ‘My’ – born and raised in the city. Emphasising the importance of independence to the nation, he recalled the ethos of the US Marine Army, adopted by the Vietnamese during the American War. “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome,” something I have and will continue to reflect on throughout my travels.



Early the following morning, we left the whirlwind of Hà Nội and headed to Ninh Bìnhon the Red River Delta, 96km south of the capital. As our noisy old minibus choked and spluttered through the dense sea of horn blasting motorbikes, we crossed Long Biên Bridge and chugged on ahead, out of the city. In the countryside beyond, farmers fled their tiny villages by bicycle and headed to begin their days labour on the lush green pastures.



Following a very rainy 4 hour drive, we arrived at the provincial city renowned for its monumental topography – as evidenced in the 2017 film, Kong: Skull Island. Bearing a striking resemblance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hạ Long Bay, Ninh Bình is home to brimming lakes and thriving rural heartlands, with limestone karsts jutting dynamically out of the leafy jungle and into the blue skies above. Beyond its block buster appeal, its captivating rural landscape is still as peaceful as it must have been a thousand years ago. A leisurely 2 hour paddle boat ride through the winding caverns and still emerald waters, and I felt humbled to experience this magical province in all its glory.



Day two of my intrepid adventure arrived and it was time to land in Phong Nha-Ke Bang, a majestic untamed beast of a national park and arguably one of the most breathtaking locations in Vietnam. Naturally composed of 100 hectares of largely untouched forest; Phong Nha is home to nearly 3000 species of tropical plantlife, crystal blue lakes and most notably, the largest known cavern in the world, Dark Cave. After hurtling full speed down a 400 metre zip wire, we dived excitedly into the ice cold waters and swam to the muddy ingress of Dark Cave. Little explored by the timid traveller, the unlit cave housed an epic mud bath, glistening flowstones and all manner of cave dwelling creatures.



Moving on from rural north central Vietnam, we arrived in the ancient city of Huế, stopping briefly on route to visit the historical Hiền Lương Bridge – once dividing north and south – and the Vịnh Mốc tunnel complex, used to house locals during the 1960s American War bombings. After arriving in the city, we sailed past the ancient citadel and visited the towering Thiên Mụ Pagoda perched nobly beside the flowing waters of the Perfume River. My second day in the city was spent lazily basking in the mid afternoon sunshine, at nearby Jungle Beach. A picture of beauty; from our thatched banana leaf hut, I looked on as hundreds of white horses galloped along the brilliant blue waves, eventually dwindling and dissolving into the fine white sand beach.



After making an appearance on the much loved British television programme Top Gear in 2008, the Hải Vân Pass was next on our agenda. Following Huế, we hurriedly departed towards Đà Nẵng along the treacherous 21km ribbon of winding coastal road. Beginning our road trip the right way, with a beer in hand, we leapt into the back of a bunch of Russian Army Jeeps and soared into the flaming hot countryside. Dipping and diving around hairpin bends and hilly inclines, we eventually chugged to a halt at Hải Vân Quan Viewpoint, where I enjoyed a fresh coconut and climbed further still to take in the 360 degree panorama below.



Just thirty minutes after passing the flame yellow Dragon Bridge in Đà Nẵng, we finally reached Hội An. Preferred by travellers to its metropolitan neighbour, the seaside town of Hội An has a distinctly old-world village charm. At night time the quaint stall fringed thoroughfares came alive, and amongst the hustle and bustle of night markets and the chant of street vendors, the distinctive aroma of incense mingled in the lantern light above.



We began our final day of the Buffalo Run tour by cycling down a dusty dirt track, through the rice paddies and over crumbling wooden bridges, to the local bamboo fringed estuary. Paddled by a fiercely resilient local woman, we bobbed excitedly down river in a bunch of handmade coconut boats, in search of crabs. In the evening, we sat beneath the fuchsia blossoms beside the river and enjoyed a hearty helping of the local noodle dish, ‘Cao Lầu’. What a perfect way to end our tour of Vietnam.