My overnight train from Hanoi to Hue was fairly comfortable, something which could have been very different as I was sharing a cabin with a mother and her very small baby. Fortunately the baby was fairly quiet and I had earplugs, but it was a close thing. Hue is an interesting town in the middle of Vietnam which was the imperial capital until 1945, when Hanoi took over. The main feature is a huge walled off imperial city (about 10kms of high wall) which was built in the earlier 1800s by the last imperial dynasty, the Nguyen dynasty. It contains the imperial palace where the emperor, his wives and concubines, his eunuchs and various administrators lived. Unfortunately most of the buildings were damaged or destroyed in the two wars in Vietnam (the independence war against the French in the 40’s and 50’s and the war against the US in the 60’s and 70’s), but it is still worth a visit, as they are repairing and restoring the remaining buildings, and it gives you a rare bit of peace and quiet). The Nguyen dynasty have quite an interesting history: for the first 80 or so years from the early 1800s things were pretty standard, with them ruling over Vietnam with the help of their ministers or mandarins. When the 3rd emperor died without a son, his cousin took over, and was promptly arrested by the mandarins on some vague charges of impropriety, and executed. Another cousin became emperor but only lasted 3 months before dying under mysterious circumstances. The next didn’t last much longer, and during his short term he signed some protectorate agreements with France to try save him from a similar fate as his cousins, which gave France the opportunity to effectively take control of the country. The next emperor tried to get out of the agreements with France, which got him exiled by the French. The next emperor suffered a similar fate, resulting in 5 different emperors over a 5 year period. By this stage the French were choosing the new emperors, who accepted that they had been reduced to a purely ceremonial role. In 1945 the final emperor abdicated in favour of Ho Chi Minh, ending Vietnam’s imperial period. One of the other sights to see at Hue are partially as a result of this history – the imperial tombs. With not much else to do, the emperors planned and built their tombs, sometimes even living at them. The are a bit out of town (so you need to use a vehicle), and are well worth seeing, and vary from small but elaborate monuments to sprawling beautiful gardens and lakes, with building for their servants and wives to live in.
After Hue I headed about 100km down South to Hoi An, a popular tourist stop for both backpackers and more standard tourists. Instead of catching a bus, I wanted to do it on the back of a bike (with someone else driving, of course), so see a bit more of the country. I was a bit worried about how uncomfortable it would be, as even a few km’s on the back of a scooter gets pretty uncomfortable, but the company I chose used easy rider type bikes, which were much more comfortable than a scooter, with a small backrest making all the difference. They offer much longer multiday trips to Hoi An, going along the famous Ho Chi Ming trail, which sound really good, and now that I know that it can be done in reasonable comfort, it’s something I’d really like to do. Along the way we stopped at a small waterfall which has been turned into a series of pools which are a popular spot for locals from Hue and Hoi An to come for a swim, as well as at the top of the Hai Van pass, which was made famous in the Top Gear Vietnam special. We also had a stop in Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city, for lunch at a local restaurant, and a brief stop at China Beach, one of the main spots where US soldiers went for some R&R.
Hoi An was once a important and prosperous trading town, who suddenly fell from prominence when sea trade started using steam boats, which were too big for Hoi An’s shallow port. As a result Da Nang rapidly took over, leaving Hoi An in a bit of a time bubble. As a result it is Vietnam’s best preserved colonial town, with strict conservation laws to keep it that way. It is also probably the most touristy place in Vietnam, and I think it is a stop on pretty much every tourist’s itinerary. Although very pretty, it does mean that it is quite crowed, and there are a lot of people trying to sell you things or trying to get you to eat I their restaurant. That said it is definitely worth a visit, with some good food, nice bars (including a sports bar where I spent the evening watching the Springboks beat the All Blacks in front of 30 Kiwis) and several things to do outside of the town.
The ancient temples of My Son are a popular half-day tour, being about 1 hour outside of Hoi An. They were built by the Buddhist Cham people with the earliest built around 900 AD and formed the centre of their empire before they were chased south by what now forms the majority of the Vienamese people. They are in a similar style to Angkor Wat’s buildings, but much smaller, and the whole guided tour takes less than 2 hours. Unfortunately most of the building were badly damaged or completely destroyed by the US, when they bombed the area to try kill some sheltering Viet Cong soldiers, and so they aren’t very spectacular (and nowhere near Angkor Wat).
Another popular spot to visit are the beaches a few kilometres outside of a Hoi An. These are easily reached by bicycle or a short scooter ride, and are a great place to relax. The beach is large and relatively uncrowned, with not too many people trying to sell you things. There quite a few little restaurants selling drinks and food, and I really enjoyed my day there. I also did a really nice, hands-on cooking course at one of the Vietnamese restaurants, Laugh Restaurant. They differed from the many other cooking courses in that you could choose the dishes you want to cook yourself, and you get involved,in all aspects of the preparation (as opposed to simply stirring pre-prepared ingredients).
Unfortunately the rainy season started while I was in Hoi An, with showers and thunderstorms becoming a regular feature, which limited what I could do at Da Lat, my next stop. Da Lat is a town in the hills around 300kms from Ho Chi Minh City, with a lovely cool climate and lots of trees and rolling hills. It is becoming a reasonably popular stop over for people wanting looking for outdoors activities, such as canyoning, hiking and climbing. It is also a popular starting point for 4 to 21 day motorbike tours around the country. Because it isn’t on the main tourist trail it has a completely different feel to other Vietnamese towns, with none of the standard tourist shops and touts trying to get your business. Very few bars or restaurants are set up mainly for tourists, and so it all feels a lot more real. It also seems to be a bit more alternative than other places in Vietnam, with some really quirky restaurants, coffee shops and bars, and even a few Vietnamese hipsters. The backpackers I stayed in, Beepub, followed this trend with some really cool decor (part of the floor of my room was covered in the small white stones used in Japanese gardens), and a nice little bar attached which had a live band most nights playing to a mixed audience of tourists and locals. A really great place to stay, and really cheap (less than $7 for a double room with private bathroom), although at night you did hear a bit of noise from the pub downstairs. The rain limited my activities, but I did get a chance to do a 7km walk around the city to and from the gondola which takes you to a lake and monastery.
My last few days were spent in Ho Chi Minh City (sometimes also called Saigon), the largest city in Vietnam. HCMC has quite a different feel to Hanoi, with lots of modern buildings, a slightly more planned roads structure, and even crazier traffic, with many more cars than Hanoi. I stayed in the dodgy backpacker area right in the centre, renowned for its cheap bars and restaurants, late night partying, street crime and ‘special’ services on offer. My mate Phil and his girlfriend Rebecca popped over from Hong Kong for a long weekend, and we were joined by their friend Rebecca, who has been living in Hong Kong for several. It was great having someone who knew the area to take us around to all the places outside the standard backpacker area, and we had some great Vietnamese food and went to some nice bars (with prices way in excess of a backpackers budget). We unfortunately didn’t manage to get to sample the food at the famous Bahn Mi 37 street stall, as the lady didn’t turn up when we went around. She only runs her stall from 4pm on the days that she feels like it, and is usually sold out within an hour or two, with many locals flocking to try to get one of her pork meatball baguettes. Something to try next time!
The whole stay did tend to revolve around eating and drinking, although Phil and I did manage to head to the Cuchi tunnels about an hour outside HCMC. These are part of an underground army base built by the Viet Cong during the US war. The tunnels link together different rooms (some in large covered pits and some underground) that were used as living quarters, hospitals, messes, and bomb and gun workshops (amongst others). The tunnels themselves are tiny, and even in the ones that have widened to fit westerners, you need to walk through them in a very uncomfortable crouch. They are also very hot and claustrophobic, and could not have been pleasant to live in. I also got to fire an AK47, which was pretty cool (and very loud).
I’m now on my way back to Johannesburg for 2 weeks of R&R and to apply for visas for the next stage of my travels – the Indian sub-continent. I probably won’t do a blog about my time in Joburg (unless people are desperate to hear about the Actuarial Convention I’m going to next week). I’m really looking forward to seeing Anne, my family and all my mates, although my liver is a little less excited about what is in store!
Hue motorbike tour: http://www.hueadventures.com
Beepub Hostel: http://www.beepub.vn/home/home
Actuarial Society of South Africa Annual Convention programme: http://www.actuarialsocietyconvention.org.za/assets/pdf/2014-Convention-programme.pdf