Along with Hanoi, the cities in Central Vietnam were the primary tourist attraction I had wanted to see coming into Vietnam having already been to Saigon about four years ago. I’m absolutely loving being away from the tourists in small towns and villages as well but I’ve definitely been expecting this portion of the trip to be a highlight. Basically within about 150km of each other about halfway up the coast are Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An, all very different but great destinations in which to spend some time.
We arrived in Hue on the 8th, planning to stay here for three nights. Because we spend both the day that we arrive and the one that we leave cycling, this means we only really had two days to spend here. Hue owes much of it’s fame to the Nguyen dynasty who ruled here from he 17th century to the 19th. It was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. Unfortunately, it suffered quite extensive damage in the war from US bombing after being captured by the Viet Cong. We spent the first day wandering around the remains of the citadel, although most of it is either in ruins or being restored. Much more impressive on the second day was hiring a motorbike and heading down to some of the royal tombs south of Hue. These monuments to imperial egotism are nonetheless very impressive – one emperor was buried with his riches by 200 men who consequently had their heads lopped off to keep his burial site a secret! My favourite was the tomb of Khai Dinh – a somewhat gothic testament to an emperor who apparently was fairly unpopular with the Vietnamese due to his close collaboration with the French occupation. It was also really enjoyable to just take a motorbike around the surrounding countryside and go exploring.
After some recommendations in Phong Nha that Danang was a bit boring, we’d only booked one night here on our way through to Hoi An. I actually really liked it here, particularly sampling the local foods! I managed to squeeze four meals in, the highlight of which was definitely the banh xeo. Although we didn’t see many sights here, I thought Danang was a really vibrant city in which I would definitely have enjoyed spending a lot more time. If we hadn’t already booked so many nights in Hoi An, we probably would have stopped here for a bit longer. There’s a river with some awesome bridges which are lit up at night (the dragon bridge is particularly impressive), beautiful beaches and every local I spoke to was really engaging.
Lastly, we arrived in Hoi An, which is definitely one of the most attractive places we’ve been on the trip, especially at night when all of the coloured lanterns come into their own, One unfortunate side effect of how pretty the town looks is that the tourist culture is just as strong as Hanoi. Everywhere you walk, you are hassled by people trying to get you into their tailor shops (which admittedly do look pretty good) using exactly the same conversation pattern. This usually involves them walking alongside you for a couple of minutes, determining where you are from and then trying to put you at ease with some witty remark. In my case as I’m Australian, this would normally be “G’day mate!” or “Kangaroo! Kangaroo!”. In some ways this made me miss London a bit – it reminded me of Jamie’s brilliant attempts at an Australian accent. The conversation then abruptly changes to their tailor store and our pressing need to have some suits made – they have surely perfected the art of the seamless segue (not to be confused with the art of the Segway, which I perfected in Thailand!).
Hoi an is definitely charming though, and I found it easy enough to put the touts out of my mind. Unfortunately Hoi An had suffered some pretty serious flooding about a month ago due to the knock on effects of typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines. Although more serious than usual, this is a usual occurrence during the rainy season and we couldn’t see any after effects. It’s a very easy town to just hang out in – nothing moves too quickly and there’s plenty of restaurants and bars around the river where you can sit back and take the day in. I also took the opportunity to take in some Ashes cricket in the local sports bars – England taking yet another hammering to lose the series before Christmas certainly put a gloss on the rest of the stay.
Having really enjoyed the food in central Vietnam (particularly me!), we decided to take a cooking class in Hoi An. There are several cooking schools here and we had quite a good day out, first exploring the market and taking in the vast array of vegetables, herbs and fruits that simply don’t exist outside of Asia. Back to the cooking school, we prepared a veritable feast for ourselves consisting of fresh prawn spring rolls, vietnamese pancakes rolled in rice paper (banh xeo), beef noodle soup (pho) and chicken with chilli and lemongrass. I’ll definitely be trying to find the right stuff when I get back home, there may be a few dinner parties in order if the practice runs go to plan, the food was pretty good!
On the night of the full moon the whole old town is shut off to motorised traffic and the lights are turned off. Candles in coloured lanterns are sold by the riverside which everyone then floats down the river, creating a very attractive scene. This was definitely one of the times I’ve regretted not bringing my big camera and tripod – I spent a bit of time looking enviously at those who had. Some of the river front itself was underwater – I’m not sure if this was tidal due to the full moon but it didn’t affect things too much. This night is not just about the lights – it’s also a celebration of the local culture which is on display in about 15 different stages. My favourite was a game called Bai Choi, which I think I could most closely describe as Vietnamese Bingo delivered through the medium of song. I took a short video which you can see below – I didn’t really grasp all of the rules of the game in the short time I was watching.
Overall Hoi An has been a very cool place to let our legs recuperate before we take on the much more demanding second half of our journey. From here we go into the Central highlands and make our way eventually to Dalat, from where we come back out to the coast to spend a couple of days then ride the last few days into Saigon. Certainly there’s less in terms of big tourist attractions until we get there, but I’m quite happy to get away from it all now. The end is very much in sight now and it feels sightly odd in a way after having so much time away from the real world. Having said that, I think we’re both in a pretty good place where we’re enjoying ourselves, looking forward to the rest of the trip and also to getting back to seeing everyone back at home!