Imperial Vietnam


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Published: July 1st 2017
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Hoi AnHoi AnHoi An

A classic and timeless Vietnamese street scene in the old quarter of Hoi An.
It is happening again. Of course it happened again. I guess I spoke too soon!
I wasn't as drunk in the morning as I was on my journey to Bangkok but running on three hours sleep after one last night out in Ho Chi Minh City, I should've been tired. As it turned out, I was awake for most of the first leg of my 23-hour bus to Hoi An, on board a a sleeper bus the like of which I have never seen before. Three rows of bunks are separated by two aisles barely wide enough to let people through but rather than having a bench to sleep on like you do in India, you instead get a reclinable seat that almost goes all the way down. You have a cubby hole in front of you where you can place your feet. It was fairly comfortable but would've been even more so had I not been stuck right at the back in what was essentially one massive bed to that slept five people across. At twenty three hours, the ride was the second longest that I have ever done, though I did have to stop in Nha Trang for an hour and a half to change buses, which
Hoi An By NightHoi An By NightHoi An By Night

Hoi An is wonderfully atmospheric at night.
broke things up a bit. With an almost fully reclinable seat it was a much more comfortable journey than the twenty-seven hour one I did up half the length of Chile.

Looking outside, it was clear to see that the Vietnamese countryside was less developed than the Thai one. You can quite easily rank the South East Asian countries I've travelled so far from the most developed (Thailand) to least (Myanmar); Vietnam slots perfectly in between. Seeing cows on the roads again was a bit of a throwback to India.

Say what you want about toilet humour but when you're on the road, the shit stories are often the best ones. Like the one when I really needed to go during the lunch break of the bus ride only to discover the toilets where squatters with manual flushes, with no hooks to hang my bag on. Using squatters are already an ordeal for me but now I had to do it with an extra 10kg on my back. Oh yeah and luckily I always have toilet paper on me these days after travelling through India and Nepal. I never know why meal stops are always at these crusty roadside shacks - nothing served at these places are ever appealing.
Tomb Of Minh Mang, HueTomb Of Minh Mang, HueTomb Of Minh Mang, Hue

The Tomb Of Minh Mang is set on a lake in the middle of a forest.
Even the meal stops in Myanmar are better!
Service on the bus itself was terrible and rude. Not at all like Thailand which in hindsight is an amazingly easy country to travel. Toilet stops were few and far between and I couldn't get to sleep because I really had to pee. I normally like less stops on a bus journey but this time they could have actually done with more.

Apart from the beach resort towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang which cater for Chinese, German and Russian package holiday tourists, Vietnam has definitely felt more backpacker-y; you had quite a few short term holidaymakers in Thailand whereas Vietnam seemed to be a place where you went if you wanted a bit more of an adventure.
Vietnam also feels more Communist; no one does propaganda like the Communists and there are definitely reminders everywhere that this is/was a Communist country; the hammer and sickle, the posters, the brutalist architecture. In many ways it felt like other (ex-)Comminist countries I have visited such as Cuba and Moldova.

In any new country I visit, I always want to complete a list of a country's best and most common foods
Japanese Covered BridgeJapanese Covered BridgeJapanese Covered Bridge

Hoi An's iconic bridge was first built in the 1590s to link the Chinese and Japanese communities.
and I had got it done early in Vietnam. Pho and banh xeo were done in HCMC and I had completed banh bao vac and Vietnamese coffee within an hour of arriving in Hoi An. Banh bao vac ("white rose") is a really nice dumpling indigenous to Hoi An while I found Vietnamese coffee a bit too much on the bitter side. Coffee and coffee houses are a big thing here in Vietnam. I also had my best banh mi yet here in Hoi An at a place endorsed by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Banh mi has to be my favourite Vietnamese delicacy; it is the warm and delicious meat combined with the fresh sweetness of copious amounts of coriander, housed in the softness and crispiness of a French baguette that does it for me. A little chilli and some pâté completes it. At 70p it's oh-so cheap too. Cao lau and quang noodles were other culinary specialties from Hoi An that I tried; both were OK.

Hoi An itself is about as peaceful, charming and picturesque a town I have visited. It reminded me a lot of the colonial towns I frequented in Latin America such as Antigua
Streets Of Hoi AnStreets Of Hoi AnStreets Of Hoi An

I loved Hoi An; I thought it was beautiful, charming, graceful, historic and laid-back.
and Colonia del Sacramento, but with a distinctly Oriental flavour. It is one of those places where artistic inspiration is abundant and great photos are so easy to take. Most significantly, the Chinese influence here cannot be overstated, especially upon visits to the Assembly Hall Of The Fujian Chinese Culture Congregation and the Quan Cong Temple (devoted to a Chinese general). Architecturally, there is also a significant Japanese influence, most obviously at the Japanese Covered Bridge. The Chinese influence can be put down to the fact that China is Vietnam's neighbour and ruled over Vietnam for a thousand years but the Japanese influence can be put down to the fact that Hoi An was for a long time, an important trading post. This was reflected at Tan Ky House, a beautiful old wooden house that was home to the philanthropic merchant, Tan Ky. The Museum Of Trading Ceramics was a little dry but it did detail Hoi An's trading past which went as far as the Middle East and even Portugal. The Tran Family Chapel was commissioned by the ex-Vietnamese ambassador to China, Tran Tu, who set up the place as a shrine where family ancestors are worshipped. You unexpectedly had a
Tan Ky House, Hoi AnTan Ky House, Hoi AnTan Ky House, Hoi An

This wonderfully preserved house was built in the 1800s and was owned by the philanthropic merchant Tan Ky.
guided tour of the place which had a mix of Chinese ("turtle" roofs"), Japanese (triple ceiling beams) and Vietnamese (bow and arrow details) architectural styles and this tour continued into the chapel shop where you were then encouraged to buy collectable coins, chopsticks and silks. I didn't like how you were made to feel obliged to buy something and this is something that is common among the Vietnamese so far; they are far more pushy and persistent in their selling than their Thai counterparts, where in Thailand you could easily walk out of a shop without buying anything while not feeling a single pang of guilt. This was quite prevalent at the central food market where every stall you walked past were very keen to sit you down. I shrug such advances off like water off a duck's back these days. The central food market did however, have more interesting things to eat and drink than other places around town and they were available at very reasonable prices. I therefore indulged myself an iced coffee with coconut milk, which was actually very nice!
Hoi An is also nice and compact, easily walkable, which meant that I had seen everything in
Colourful AlleyColourful AlleyColourful Alley

Spotted this colourful alley inside an assembly hall in Hoi An.
half a day.

On my first night in Hoi An, I was awoken by a familiar itch that I've encountered far too many times more than I would've liked. Unusually, I wasn't the only one in my room to get it this time.
Whenever you get bedbugs, you have a duty to inform the hostel staff and you will get one of three different reactions.
Some hostels, particularly if they are a small operation, will deny that they have a problem, even in the face of evidence (dead bedbugs) and will often blame you for bringing them in. And that is the most annoying thing about bedbugs; they are difficult to find, which makes it difficult to prove whether you indeed might have brought them in or not, and are an arse ache to get rid of. To treat bedbugs properly, you need to shut down a whole room for a few days. In the middle of peak season, this can cripple a business so I understand the 'deny, blame and carry on' response. But there will be a bigger price to pay if word gets online that you have a bedbug problem. Sometimes you can just hope that
Alley, Hoi AnAlley, Hoi AnAlley, Hoi An

Life in Hoi An doesn't appear to have changed much over the years.
it was a couple of random bugs and not an infestation in the room, but out of decency, you should not be letting people sleep in a room where there are known to be bedbugs. What does help hostel owners with this particular reaction strategy is the fact that travellers themselves know very little about bedbugs; having had them in my flat in London and countless times over the years on my travels, I've done my reading and know how they behave and the best measures to get rid of them. Regardless of the reaction, most hostels will let you leave and refund any money you have already paid for your stay.
The second most common reaction is shock and concern, followed by ineffective and/or uneducated actions to get rid of them or even worse, no follow-up actions at all. A spray-down of the beds, mattresses and bags is not going to kill bedbugs within twenty-fours; it takes days for proper bedbug killer to work. Washing everything doesn't work either; things have to be hot washed at ninety degrees or stuck in a dryer for thirty minutes or left out in the sun all day, if you're somewhere with a
Vietnamese Coffee & "White Rose" DumplingsVietnamese Coffee & "White Rose" DumplingsVietnamese Coffee & "White Rose" Dumplings

I found the coffee a bit too bitter for my liking; the banh bao vac - or "white rose" dumplings - are native to Hoi An and were delicious!
hot enough sun. Still, token efforts to get rid of them is better than doing nothing; in one hostel where I had them, we were moved to another room only for our original beds to be filled with new guests!
The third reaction is for the hostel to apologise and then take full responsibility for properly getting rid of the bedbugs from the room and sometimes, from your stuff! This was the reaction that I got in Hoi An, as everything that was washable got dry cleaned for free, including my shoes and both of my bags. We were then put up at a guesthouse across the road for no extra charge. I was in need of doing laundry too! Handy!
What I have learned about bedbugs in the hostel industry is that with so many people now travelling and with hostels now so popular, it is inevitable that places will have bedbugs - and contrary to popular belief, bedbugs are not a reflection of the cleanliness of a place or a person (although keeping things clean does help), but simply the fact that someone has unknowingly spread them in their luggage or clothes; and that bedbugs are somewhat of a taboo in the industry given their potential to significantly damage business and no-one wants to
Cau An Hoi, Hoi AnCau An Hoi, Hoi AnCau An Hoi, Hoi An

Looking towards the north bank of the Thu Bon River from the beautifully lit An Hoi Bridge.
talk about or acknowledge this elephant in the room. I do now regard myself as a little bit of an expert in bedbugs and often find myself telling hostels how they should be dealing with them, but some hostel staff unsurprisingly don't take well to being schooled by a guest own how to do their job. Then again, very few people know just how much travel I've done and how much experience I've had with bedbugs!

The hostel's reaction to the bedbugs was in keeping with the great overall experience that I had at this hostel. There was a free activity to take part in every night which makes the hostel amazingly social - this is what all hostels should be like. People will overlook whether a hostel isn't that clean or if some of the facilities are a bit dated, as long as they have had a great time at the hostel. I won't remember that the hostel had a funky smell emanating from the bathrooms or the fact that it might've been located a little far from the sights; I will remember the free spring roll making lesson that we had, how much which fun it was
Banh Bot LocBanh Bot LocBanh Bot Loc

Tapioca dumpling filled with shrimp and pork belly.
and how there were so many spring rolls made (where fried spring rolls are then wrapped inside fresh spring rolls) that I had trouble putting beers away afterwards; I will remember the free pub crawl that saw me in charge of a free bottle of nasty Vietnamese vodka that we received for buying six cocktails at one bar and how I was administering caps of the stuff to every person on the crawl - and how only a whole bottle of water and a banh mi before sleeping saved me from a wretched hangover the next day; I will remember the free street food tour that introduced me to the likes of banh bot loc (tapioca dumpling filled with shrimp and pork belly), banh can (deep fried pancake made with rice flour, quail eggs, pork and shrimp) and banh uot thit nuong (delicious grilled pork skewers wrapped in noodles and fresh herbs inside wet rice paper).

On my last night in Hoi An, a group of us including Swede Kristian who I had in fact met in Ho Chi Minh City and Canadian Chelsea, went to the night market which was surprisingly busy. But the river was where most
Lanterns, Hoi AnLanterns, Hoi AnLanterns, Hoi An

Lanterns in the streets of Hoi An lend the town a charming and romantic atmosphere at night.
of the action was taking place as tourists took romantic boats that went under beautifully lit bridges and placed candle-lit lotus flowers into the water for good luck, similar to what they do in Varanasi. By night, Hoi An has an even more charming atmosphere as Chinese lanterns light up the colourful alleyways.
We got caught up in the mood a bit and therefore stopped at a nice restaurant for cocktails which was a very weird experience; first of all, the cocktails sucked and were far too strong - we were looking to enjoy a civilised cocktail rather than get trashed - and then it seemed like the staff couldn't wait to get rid of us, bringing us out bill before we even had the chance to consider ordering anything more.
The Vietnamese definitely aren't as polite as Thais; there is more a language barrier here which doesn't help, but they are quite blunt, very pushy and get very quickly to the point regarding the handing over of money and/or the quoting of a price. They don't seem to be aware that money is a little bit more of a sensitive issue among Westerners and it's annoying and rude to
Lanterns For Sale, Hoi AnLanterns For Sale, Hoi AnLanterns For Sale, Hoi An

Lanterns for sale at the night market.
bring it up quickly and constantly. Such behaviour is off-putting and counterproductive in making a sale to a Westerner but it's just a difference in culture. The Vietnamese seeming mistrust regarding getting paid what they are owed reminds me very much of the Chinese. Despite this, hospitality is generally been excellent and the locals have been more than happy to bend over backwards for you.

I hadn't originally planned on stopping in Hue but it broke up the journey to Phong Nha-Khe Bang National Park nicely and it was listed as one of Vietnam's highlights by the Lonely Planet so I decided to squeeze it in. I had concerns about how long it might take me to get into Laos given the limited time I had left of my fifteen visa-free days in Vietnam and also about the fact that the border crossing nearest to Phong Nha didn't issue Laos visas-on-arrival. I worked out however that I still had enough time.

You wouldn't think that Hue was once the royal capital of Vietnam; the city itself is a bustling, non-descript and a little untidy, but the main reason for coming here was to visit the Imperial Citadel.
Ngo Mon Gate, HueNgo Mon Gate, HueNgo Mon Gate, Hue

The main gateway into the Imperial Enclosure within the Imperial Citadel was only used by the emperor and his family; everyone else had to use alternative side gates.

Before the French ruled Vietnam as part of Indochina in the 19th century, Vietnam was ruled by a succession of dynasties; some were truly Vietnamese in origin, others were Chinese, such as when Vietnam was under Chinese rule for some one thousand years.
Along with German fraulein Sigi, who I had met in Hoi An and then again on the the bus to Hue, we visited the Imperial Citadel which was the royal residence of the Nguyen dynasty which ruled from 1802 to 1945, through a period of symbolic rule during the French occupation. With its moat and 10km of walls, the Imperial Citadel resembles the Mandalay Palace and to a lesser extent, the old city of Chiang Mai. Within the outer walls lies the Imperial Enclosure, a citadel within a citadel that houses the royal temples and palaces. Among the highlights inside are the Ngo Mon Gate, the Thai Hoa Palace, The Emperor's Reading Room (a small palace built just so the emperor could read books in it) and the To Mieu Temple Complex which contains shrines to each emperor of the dynasty with a decorative urn (nine of them in total) dedicated to each. The complex is very beautiful and
To Mieu Temple Complex, HueTo Mieu Temple Complex, HueTo Mieu Temple Complex, Hue

Inside one of the temples in the To Mieu Temple Complex in the Imperial Enclosure.
very...Chinese. Considering that the Chinese ruled over Vietnam for some one thousand years it should be no surprise to discover that the Vietnamese have integrated parts of Chinese culture into their own. Even their language was derived from Chinese characters before it was romanised under French rule.
I had not really seen anything like the Imperial Citadel before; I have a feeling however I will be seeing plenty similar in China.

Like Hoi An, Hue also has a great culinary tradition. Chief among its delicacies is banh khoai, a fried pancake-like rice cake filled with pork and shrimp; Hue cake, a salami-Iike snack stuffed with chillies and wrapped in mountains of banana leaves that make it resemble a pass-the-parcel; and banh nam, a rice pudding that you scrape off yet more banana leaves. I also had banh canh, a thick rice noodle served in a thick red broth that we had at a truly local joint.

My second day in Hue saw Sigi and I share a motorbike to explore the royal tombs of the Nguyen dynasty that are dotted around the countryside south of Hue. It was a fun day in the sun as we took in
Tomb Of Khai Dinh, HueTomb Of Khai Dinh, HueTomb Of Khai Dinh, Hue

Set on a hill, the inside of the tomb is colourful, elaborate and impressive.
the Tomb Of Khai Dinh, a black concrete monument built on the side of a hill with both Vietnamese and European architectural elements - the interior is beautifully ornate and colourful; the Tomb Of Minh Mang which is set on a lake in the middle of a forest; and the Tomb Of Tu Duc, which had a grand and colourful exterior and its own artificial lake. All were very elegant and beautiful and again very...Chinese.

In all honesty however, by the time we got to the last tomb, I was a bit over it; I have honestly never sweated as much nor struggled as much with the heat as I did that day, just from sightseeing. Cuba could get bad but never unbearable; Myanmar and India were dry so as long as you were out of the sun you were fine; and it rained a fair bit when I was in Malaysia and Thailand which cooled the temperature a little. I've never seen my forearms drenched and dripping with so much sweat before.

The last thing we did that day was to visit an abandoned water park - it was pretty cool. You could climb up the inside
Abandoned Water Park, HueAbandoned Water Park, HueAbandoned Water Park, Hue

This dragon was once the centrepiece of the now-abandoned water park.
of a massive dragon and look out across a lake from inside its mouth; you could visit the old water slides; and you could visit the old stadium where dolphins would perform their tricks. There is always something cool about visiting abandoned places; the imagining of what they were like in their heyday, dreams of what was, now lost and broken. It reminded me of Buzludzha in Bulgaria and the sniper tower in Mostar, Bosnia. I was glad to leave the place though; I was wilting so badly from the heat that I was almost beyond caring about what was in front of me.

I did get to ride a petrol-powered motorbike for the first time though. It was pretty much the same as riding the e-bike in Bagan but just with a more powerful, faster and heavier bike. It took a few minutes to get used to the weight distribution with Sigi in the back though.
I only rode on the highways and small tracks; Sigi rode through the city and loved it. A German farmer's daughter took to Asian city driving like a duck to water but it was her aggression and bravado that got her through, barging her way
Tomb Of Tu Duc, HueTomb Of Tu Duc, HueTomb Of Tu Duc, Hue

The Tomb Of Tu Duc actually also served as a residence before the emperor died. This structure here houses Emperor Tu Duc's epitaph although his body is in fact buried in a secret location in Hue.
into traffic and being completely unfazed by other motorbikes coming at us from all directions at tricky intersections and no-rule roundabouts. I admired her pluck!

And with that my five days of Vietnamese history and culture came to an end; it was now time to discover and explore some Vietnam's natural wonders in Phong Nha-Khe National Park!

Hẹn sớm gặp lại,
Derek


Additional photos below
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Colonnade, HueColonnade, Hue
Colonnade, Hue

Covered walkway inside the Imperial Enclosure.
Water Slide, HueWater Slide, Hue
Water Slide, Hue

Water slide that was part of the now-abandoned water park.
Abandoned Water Park Stadium, HueAbandoned Water Park Stadium, Hue
Abandoned Water Park Stadium, Hue

Graffiti on the terraces of the old stadium of the now-abandoned water park.
Hue CakeHue Cake
Hue Cake

Salami-like rice pudding that is native to Hue.
Assembly Hall Of The Fujian Chinese Congregation, Hoi AnAssembly Hall Of The Fujian Chinese Congregation, Hoi An
Assembly Hall Of The Fujian Chinese Congregation, Hoi An

This former assembly hall is now a temple dedicated to the Fujian Chinese deity Thien Hau.
Quan Cong Temple, Hoi AnQuan Cong Temple, Hoi An
Quan Cong Temple, Hoi An

This Confucian temple is dedicated to the former Chinese general Quan Cong and dates back to 1653.
Tran Family Chapel, Hoi AnTran Family Chapel, Hoi An
Tran Family Chapel, Hoi An

This chapel was founded to worship family ancestors - I've come across such a shrine or temple dedicated to family ancestors before.
Sleeper BusSleeper Bus
Sleeper Bus

I had never seen a sleeper bus like this before. They're actually pretty comfortable though.


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