After I got back from Sapa, I was at a bit of a loss of what to do. I knew I needed to get out of Hanoi and start heading south. Did I go to Phong Nha, or to Hue, or straight to Hoi An? If i’m totally honest, I felt a bit nervous at the prospect of it all. I had just got settled into Vietnam and even though I had now, at that point, been travelling for three weeks and felt confident, I still worried that tiny bit about travelling alone. About messing up. Especially when the last two places I had been – Sapa, and Halong Bay, meant that meeting people was easy by their very nature. They are two places you can not explore without a tour. In the case of Sapa this is only the case for the trekking, but you can always be assured you will meet new people on your trek.
I’ve never been interested in tours that take you through whole countries or more with a group of people. They seemed to go too quickly, racing through countries at a break-neck speed, more about seeing the highlights than taking your time and truly embracing yourself in the culture. They leave little room for flexibility and of course, are ridiculously expensive. But small tours – such as the tours that run to Halong Bay – are fun, friendly, and short. This is why I became interested in the Buffalo Run. It is a 7 day tour which takes you from Hanoi to Hoi An, stopping off along the way at many places in Vietnam that you might normally miss on your own. It would normally take 3 or 4 days to get to Hoi An if you didn’t go directly, but with 7 days, this tour seemed less about racing and more about actually exploring the north. So despite the $400 price tag, I decided to go for it. I was on track with my budget and I was hopeful it would be like Sapa in the way that it would be a fun, friendly environment. But unfortunately, I got to the end of the first day and ended up regretting my decision.
Now I have finished the tour and have the power of hindsight, I am glad I did it. I don’t like to do regrets and I believe all things in life provide lessons. I met some good people, I saw beautiful areas of Vietnam I wouldn’t of seen otherwise. Some places seeming like a hidden secret only known by the locals. But I also learnt that organised tours are so not for me.
The tour started with a 6.30am start and a drive to a national park. We got to see endangered monkeys and turtles before setting off on a long, sweaty mountain bike ride to our destination through the jungle. We ended up at our hotel, in the middle of nowhere. It was the most dingy hotel I had ever been to. It looked like it had never been cleaned. The rooms did not have fans or air-con, yet in the midst of the Northern Vietnamese jungle, the heat and humidity was heavy and unbearable. The provided mosquito nets were patched up with duct tape, and one had a cockroach nestling in. I don’t want to sound like a ‘princess’, up on my high horse about accommodation, but it was easily the worst place I’ve stayed and I couldn’t help but wonder, where was all our money going? Because it certainly wasn’t going into our accomodation. Having these thoughts, as well as the fact I was now bitten to buggery by mosquitos, definitely set the tour up as a failure for me. I felt like I had totally wasted my money.
On the second day, after a 2 hour jungle trek, we headed to Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh was gorgeous and could be done on your way south or north, or as a day trip from Hanoi. We took a row boat down the river and went through small caves nestled in gorgeous, towering mountains. We also got to see some pretty temples.
That night I got to experience my first night bus to Phong Nha. The night bus was ok but I did not get a lot of sleep. Phong Nha was incredible but we had to meet at 7.30am after getting off the bus at 5.30. It made me realise how restricting it truly is to do a tour. You have to meet at certain times and if I was doing my own thing, I could have a lie in, feel rested and truly prepared for the day.
In Phong Nha, we got to see Paradise Cave, at 35km long this is the biggest cave in the world. We could only go 1 or 2 km into it, but seeing the size and slope was truly awe-inspiring, and photos just do not do it any justice at all.
We then went to a natural spring. There were absolutely no tourists about and I couldn’t tell you what the spring was called or where in Phong Nha it was located. This was the type of thing that made doing the tour worthwhile – seeing some of the beauty of Vietnam that you would never normally see. We ate lunch in a bamboo hut on giant bamboo leaves then walked further towards the spring where we could swim. It looked absolutely heavenly – like a scene out of a Disney film. The water was the bluest water I have ever seen. Everyone else in my group went for a swim, but I was still recovering from a Castaways induced cold, the monsoons were present and the water was freezing. So I decided against it. Whilst the sight was beautiful, it did make me feel lonely and isolated, but of my own doing. I did not want to swim. I felt a pressure to be involved when I simply enjoyed taking in the views and the serenity of my surroundings. Whilst everyone else went swimming in the strong currents of the spring, I sat in the bamboo hut and began doing some yoga. I may have been the odd one out but it made me feel so much better and made my head less clouded. It reminded me of who I was and why I was there, that it’s always important to do your own thing and go with how you feel and what suits you, and most importantly that everything in life can offer a lesson. That moment was the first moment I had just for me – up until then I hadn’t had one moment to relax, reflect or write. But there in that hut I could be with myself and do what I do best. After that, everything seemed to get so much better. I felt more myself and more confident in my surroundings.
That evening we ate dinner at the only backpacker hostel in town – Easy Tiger. There I got to talk to other backpackers and it made me realise how isolated being on a tour can make you feel. Talking to other people was so refreshing and I ended up making two really great friends – Gen and Jennie – who I then met again in Hoi An.
After Phong Nha we made our way to Hue. After that the tour got so much better for me. On our way to Hue we stopped at the DMZ – De-Militerised Zone. Here we got to see some of the tunnels used in the war for people to live in. The tunnel system here is not as complex as the Cu Chi Tunnels and were used more for people to live and survive in than to make warfare in like down in the south. It was still absolutely fascinating and so mad to think that people lived in these tunnels – they gave birth here, taught here, ate here, slept here. Under the ground with no daylight, never sure when a missile would hit their land lying just above the tunnels.
In Hue, it felt like re-entering society again. We met lots of other backpackers and drank beer and had a little bit of a party. Everything was more relaxed and we had more room to do our own thing. Up until then I had hated the rigid nature of doing a tour. I had felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing following everyone around. Now back in a city and out of the wild, I felt like I could take off my silly costume. I mingled and met friends I’d met in other places.
In Hue, we took a trip to the beach. It was raining heavily all day, yet I still really enjoyed myself. We sat in a hut, played lots of card games, and socialised. The vibe was relaxed and I finally felt like I could get to know the people I was on the tour with, rather than have our opinions of each other be set by the tour.
The day after Hue, we drove – via the Hai Van Pass – to Hoi An. Here the tour ended. I ended the tour on a high, feeling like I had met great people, experienced Vietnam in a different way, and seen a lot I would never normally get to see. However, I was also relieved the tour had come to an end. For many people, being on an organised tour eliminates the stress of having to organise things like night buses and accommodation yourself. Everything is sorted for you. Yet I discovered that I enjoy planning these things – it is liberating and freeing and you get to actually do what YOU want to do. I didn’t enjoy sticking to a set itinery. I didn’t enjoy the early mornings. I didn’t enjoy the lack of flexibility. I think these are things that differ based on the person you are. I discovered I prefer the DIY method, but for others tours are a brilliant way to see somewhere, meet people, and have everything sorted for you.
I think the main reason I wouldn’t do something like this again, however, is the cost. Whilst some tours may be great value for money, The Buffalo Run definitely was not. I honestly struggle to see where my money went. The accommodation in Hue and Hoi An were hostels owned by the same company who run The Buffalo Run, and while the hotel in Phong Nha was nice, the first hotel was horrendous. I felt ripped off as we had been told everything would be included, but as soon as we got to Phong Nha we had to buy our own dinners. It felt so frustrating seeing as we spent so much money. Overall I had a good time but I think this is because I treated it as a new experience and as a lesson – organised tours just aren’t for me.