Tranquil Highlands of Central Vietnam- Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue

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January 24th 2016
Published: January 24th 2016
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Travels routes in central highland of Vietnam

I flew from Hanoi to Da Nang. Then traveled by road from Da Nang to Hoi An and Hoi An to Hue by road.

I have been lucky so far that except one day in Hanoi, weather has cooperated with me. During the month of December, January, it usually rains a lot in Central Vietnam highlands. But I am fortunate, today was sunny. From my window seat I could see below the picturesque Da Nang city basking in a sunny afternoon. Beautiful!

I collected my luggage and came out of the terminal. There are not many people waiting outside for pick up. I could easily spot my tour guide and the transport. The SUV will be my home for the next few days. Julie from Travelsense Asia has arranged this part of my trip meticoulously. The plan is to first check-in at the hotel, leave my luggage and head out to the beach for a brief parasailing in South China Sea. It was about 4:00 pm when I checked in at the hotel. I didn’t have much time before it would be dark. So I hurried to the front desk of the Brilliant hotel. They have upgraded my room to a Grand suite in the top floor. I asked my guide and the driver to wait downstairs and took the elevator to leave my luggage. Wow! What a suit! I don’t think I stayed in a suite this luxurious before! I could see the entire city, the Han river, the Dragon Bridge right from the bedroom. The bedroom wall is a transparent glass window. The attached bathroom was a sheer joy – with Jacuzzi tub and shower. The living room is another delight with its own bathroom and amenities. I told myself that when I would come back later in the night, I will enjoy the room. However, I knew that I will be late in coming back to the hotel tonight. The plan is to go out for dinner with Linh after the parasailing . Linh is coming to visit me in Da Nang from Hoi An with her two year old son William. We are planning to go out for dinner all three. It’s too bad I will be staying in such a beautiful hotel only for one night. What a pity! I am leaving for Hoi An and Hue tomorrow morning.

I came downstairs and headed out for the beach. I got the first bad news when I reached the beach. The wind was not flowing in the right direction that day, I was told. I went near the water crossing the beach and made a rudimentary wind sock testing with a napkin. I didn’t think it was that bad. However, the guys refused to sail on there. I couldn’t do much if they don’t want to sail. But I didn’t find the guys to be professional at all. They seemed to be more interested with their restaurant business and were least concerned with my interest. My tour guide Sam tried to talk them into it, but the owner simply won’t budge. I gave up. Sam and I discussed that we would try it again tomorrow on our way back from Hoi An as we have to go to Hue through Da Nang anyway. Sam took me out to a viewpoint where we could see the Da Nang city from a higher elevation. It was getting dark. The city looked beautiful in the twilight. I asked Sam to return to the hotel as Linh was supposed to come to the hotel at 6:00 pm. I never like to be late for an appointment. On the way to the hotel, I was watching the city of Da Nang city from my car. It’s a nice well planned city. The evening dusk is coming down slowly over the city, I found that the roads are well lit and wide, not congested like Hanoi. We crossed the Dragon Bridge, illuminated with colourful lights. When reached to the hotel, I told Sam that I will be slightly late in come back to the hotel tonight after the dinner. Sam started arguing. One extra hour is not part of his contract. In the meantime, Linh arrived in the middle of our argument. She intervened and finally we agreed that we are going to release Sam after the dinner only and we will take Linh’s rental car for after the dinner coffee.

My knowledge of Da Nang city is zero and I didn’t know where to go out for dinner. Linh chose a place, nothing fancy but a good place to eat with good choice of foods. We all three sat down and dined. Wiliiam is a handful and needed much attention. I got to know Linh as Lily from the Trip Advisor when I started planning my trip to Vietnam with HTS. She practically booked everything for me in Hanoi, Sapa and Ha Long Bay. If I got worried with any part of the trip, Linh used to assure me not to worry. She is amazing. She left HTS and started her own business in Hoi An. I invited her for the dinner in Da Nang and she agreed. Now there we are, we were busy catching up a lot. We finished our dinner, released my car after they dropped us in my hotel. Linh took us to a fancy rooftop café in her rental car for cofee. Wow! What a view of the Da Nang city from the rooftop! I loved it. It’s a fancy place alright; I could see lot of youngsters hanging around. Cofee in Vietnam is very strong, so I preferred tea or other drink. We took our drinks and settled down for a chat. There was a lot to catch up. Linh is working hard. It’s great to see that she has accepted this new challenge and doing well. We talked for a while. It was getting late. It was way past William’s bed time and he was tired; they have to return Hoi An. I have a long day tomorrow as well. I seem to be running out my reserve energy supply and I was longing to return to my hotel. Linh dropped me at the hotel in her car and we said good night. The next morning I was to visit Hoi An and we planned to grab a cup of coffee together before I head out to Hue.

Once I got back to the hotel, I changed my cloths and went in the bedroom. I looked outside the window. The view of Da Nang, Han river, Dragon bridge with all its colourful light was a great sight. I tried to take some photos. With my basic Sony camera, it’s not easy to get a decent night shot. Anyway, I got few shots and I was content as I didn’t have much energy to continue with the camera. I went to bed and watched the Da Nang city at night, the far away Dragon Bridge glittering in the night. Quickly I fell asleep.

A shower of morning light woke me up. I didn’t feel like getting up as I was still tired. But I don’t have a choice. Sam would come at 9:00 am. I quickly took shower and got ready. The downstairs restaurant was getting crowded with guests gathering for breakfast. Most of the people staying in the hotel are travellers like me. The central highlands of Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue have lately become a very popular route for the tourists. It’s hard to imagine that 30-40 years ago, Da Nang area was sprayed with orange agent. Today, it has been transformed to a beautiful city. The breakfast was good as usual and I always enjoy the buffet breakfast in Vietnam and Thailand....many choices of foods and fruits. And usually this is a hearty breakfast that gets me going for a long time.

Sam was waiting downstairs with the driver. I checked out from the hotel, threw the suitcase in the car and we were on our way to Hoi An. Hoi An is an ancient city and it’s not too far from Da Nang; it’s about 30 km. Even with a slow traffic, it should not take more than an hour. We were not rushing. We reached Hoi An around 10:00 am. It’s an ancient city, dating back from early 10th century and it is now recognized as World Heritage site by UNESCO. The Thu Bon River used to be the main gateway of trading; the Japanese covered bridge, which is an unique architecture, used to be the demarcation line between the Japanese and Chinese settlement. The photo of the bridge is printed on the bill of 20,000 Dong. The old city is a city of joy. Two hundred years old houses are still intact and lived in by people. I went inside a two storey house where, of course, a plenty of tourists are hanging around and local products are for sale. One part of the upstairs is used to attract the tourists whereas on the other part of the building is used for living. It’s hard to believe how such an old wooden structure is well preserved so that people could still live in there. I found that there is a water well in the middle of an alley way. It is so unusual. Perhaps it was not an alley long time ago when the well was built. No idea.

I came out from the old city center and strolled around in the new residential and commercial areas. There must be some kind of a festival going on, I saw the children are nicely dressed and going to the school. I liked the houses, seems to be a peaceful neighbourhood. The hustle and bustle of Hanoi is gone and I was not so afraid of the scooters on the road. I entered a photographic shop run by a French national named Réhahn. The guy takes photographs mostly in Vietnam, makes photobooks and sells the books in stores and online. He also participates in many photography exhibitions. I was curious because I also do a little bit of photography and make my own photobooks. But Réhahn is a professional. He makes his living out of it. He is living in Vietnam for the last eight years and does not intend to return in France. I was tempted to buy one nice book from Réhahn. But the book was heavy and it will be difficult for me to carry it all through my trip. I decided that I will buy it through Amazon once I go back to Canada. I really wanted to walk some more, but Sam was hurrying me up. I didn’t like it. The last thing I need during a trip is losing my freedom. Anyway, I called Linh to check whether she can make time for the coffee. Unfortunately, she was tied up with some urgent business matters and she could not make it. I had tea with Sam and my driver and then we took off from Hoi An. We have a long road to Hue through Da Nang.

On the way, we stopped near the famous marble mountain. There are quite a number of small scale industries which make marble and jade stone products. We stopped there for a while. I am no expert in marble statues, but their quality seemed to be very good. The shop owners pestered me to buy something. But I was non-committal. We left the store and boarded our car to travel to Da Nang. Once in the city, we headed towards the beach. I was almost sure that as before, the owner will not be interested in parasailing, because he may have other priorities. And I was right. A large group of people, probably a tour group or office gang, were having lunch. The owner was busy in catering. While Sam waited to talk to the owner, I went in the beachfront and strolled around. There was not much wind, which is a good sign. But I didn’t see anyone in the sea windsurfing or parasailing. I already knew in my heart what would be the answer. Sam came back and said, there will not be any parasailing today. However, we were told, that if we are interested, we could have lunch there. Sam looked at me. I just murmured “screw them”, and went to the car. I was disappointed, but there is not much I could do. When we reached to the other end of Da Nang, I noticed some beautiful buildings. I asked,

“What buildings are those, Sam”?

“Well they are used as rental for wedding parties”.

“Wow, they look gorgeous, can we take a look at them a bit”,

“But we are getting late”, Sam told.

I was half irritated, and said,” screw your time!, I want to see things”. Somehow, Sam was so obsessed with his contractual rights that I was losing my patience. The driver nodded and turned the car around and went in the parking lot of the building. Very interesting! One is ‘Kings’ building and the other one is ‘Queens’. Already there was a red carpet in one of them and guests were arriving. I wanted to go nearby and have a look at it closely. But that would be interfering with privacy. I don’t know why I feel this way whenever I am in a new place. I just die to know the lifestyle of the new people, ask them questions. But I also know where to draw the line. So, I took some photos and went in the car. It was midday. Sun was high and outside was hot and humid. It’s a respite inside the car. We crossed the Dragon Bridge and got out of the city. Soon, the landscape of the city was behind us. We were climbing up the Hai Van Pass. It’s about 21 km long pass that climbs over the mountain over 1600 ft tall. The route is picturesque. The pass also has a strategic importance that long time ago it was used as a barrier against any kind of ground invasion from North or Central Vietnam to the south. We could see the vista in front of us with the coastline of South China Sea. Da Nang skyline was visible in the backdrop of the vista…beautiful. We got out of the car in few places to take some shots from my camera. We went at the top of the mountain where we stopped for a bathroom break. There was an old bunker which was once used for stopping the advance of the land troops.

We started winding down. When we stopped on a road site restaurant not far from Hue, it was late afternoon. I was hungry. Sam ordered and we settled down with our lunch. It is a beach front property, overlooking the sea. My table was on the inside patio overlooking the sea. Just below the restaurant there is a swimming pool extending to the beach. Such a beautiful beach, such lovely hot sun, I find it is ideal for a dip. But no, I couldn’t see anyone. I was surprised and asked Sam,

“Hey Sam, where are the people on the beach, I don’t see any one”.

“Well, it’s the winter time, my friend”, Sam replied like a wise man

“Winter, you kidding,- it’s nice and warm, and you call it winter”? I snapped back.

“Well it’s winter to us”, Sam told in a matter-of-fact voice. And Sam was right. When I grew up in India, I used to wear sweater in such winter times. I am not used to that climate any more. Canada is cold. So, it’s easy for me to say that it’s not the winter. “Never mind, Sam, you are right”. It’s all about perception.

I met a duo, father and son, sitting next to my table. They are from Vancouver and they rented bicycles and they are riding from Hue to Da, my. I cannot dream of doing what they are doing. Not even in hundred years. There I am, traveling in an aircon car and I am tired at the end of the day. Suddenly, I was ashamed of myself. “Never mind”, I told myself. I guess everyone must do what they enjoy doing. Good for them.

I was done with the lunch, said good bye to the Canadian duo and headed out towards Hue. The road is much straight from here onward. Gone are those hairpin bends. The tall mountains are on my left hand side. They looked gorgeous with black and white cloud hovering over them in the afternoon sun. I must have dozed off a bit and woke up suddenly hearing my name. Sam was on the phone and he was talking to someone. I heard my name a couple of times. I called Sam and asked,

“I heard my name, what is all about”?

“Well, I am talking to the Vietnam Airlines”

“Ok, but why are you talking to the Vietnam Airlines about me”? I asked

“Just to find if your flight is in time tomorrow”, Sam said in a matter-of-fact voice.

“Did I ask you to do that? Please, don’t”, I said in a flat tone. I prefer to do that myself when it involves my name in particular. This is for airline security reasons. I thought he is overreaching his contractual agreement. But Sam told me it is part of his duty. Well, what can I say? In my mind, I gave him a name “Mr. Smartass”.

It was late in the afternoon when we reached Hue. It’s an old city, I suppose similar to Hoi An, probably less older than Hoi An. It was the national capital for 150 years until 1945, when the communist government was established in Hanoi. The emperor Bao Dai from Hue set his new capital to Saigon in south and Hue ceased to be the capital. The city suffered considerable damages during the Vietnam war when much of the destruction occurred due to the fighting between the American marines and North Vietnamese soldiers. The city was rebuilt after the war was over. Hue is well known for its monuments, citadel and it made its place in the history when UN announced it as UNESCO Heritage site. Spread along the Perfume river, the city is a mixture of old monuments, citadels and the modern houses and shops, busy rush hour traffic, hotels and commercial districts, colleges and universities. It is not a manicured city like Da Nang, but surely it is a very much lived in city with its own attractions all over the places.

Our first destination was Thien Mu Pagoda standing next to the Perfume river. Built in 1601, it is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Inside, it is a sprawling compound away from the bustling Hue city center and the atmosphere is very calm and quiet. In 1963, tough restrictions were placed on the Buddhists by the Ngo Dinh Diem government in Saigon. In protest against the Diem regime, one Buddhist carried out self-immolation in a busy Saigon street. That created big world uproar. The monks in this pagoda were also persecuted. The Austin car used by the Buddhist monk is still preserved in the pagoda.

We took a 40 minute boat ride on the Perfume river and sailed towards the city center. The car was waiting at the other end and Sam brought me to the Eldora hotel where I checked-in. Wow! This is also another gorgeous hotel after the Brilliant hotel in Da Nang. It is a newly built hotel with amazing room decor. Credit goes to Julie from Travelsense Asia who gave me the information on both of these hotels. Sam and the driver left for the day after dropping me to the hotel. They will be here tomorrow to pick me up at 9:00 am. My flight to Ho Chi Minh city is at noon time.

Again, this will be a merely touch and go trip to Hue. I could hardly see anything in such a short time. Well, I knew this is going to happen and I am partly to blame for this. On the other hand, I didn’t have much choice as I couldn’t afford to spend more time in Vietnam due to my next leg of the travel plan to India. Nevertheless, it will be a challenge to see the landmarks in Hue. But I was more interested in seeing the local life style rather than visiting the monuments. I was standing near the portico of the hotel thinking about the plan for tomorrow, when I saw a large tour bus just drove near the entrance. With casual interest I watched the people coming down from the bus. Suddenly I was startled. Guess who are coming down? This is the group I met in the Ha Long Bay cruise! I waited till they arrived in the hotel main entrance. “Welcome to Hue”, I told them with a welcoming smile. They were taken aback seeing me there. “Are you stalking us”, one guy asked smiling. “Well, I could ask the same, isn’t it”, I returned the joke with a smile. Later in the night when I wrote this to my wife back in Canada, she laughed...”what a coincidence; I think they are the ones who are following you”, she said.

There is a cluster of nice restaurants within walking distance from the Eldora hotel. I was hungry. I walked to find out a nice place...I was longing for chicken or vegetable fried rice. I found out the area and looked for the restaurant that Sam recommended. At the first glance, I couldn’t find the place and then after a couple of times walking back and forth on the strip I saw the sign. I took one glance and didn’t need to go further. There was no empty table I could see and already there was a short line up near the entrance. Must be a good place! Oh, well! Not my day perhaps! I consoled myself with the fact I am not looking for any special dishes whatsoever...just fried rice, so why can’t I find some other place. I went to a nearby restaurant and indeed, I didn’t have any problem ordering some chicken fried rice and curry. And to be honest, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Perhaps more so, because I was so hungry that I could eat a horse. I wanted to take a walk down to the night market which was within a short walking distance. I asked the waitress about the direction. She reminded me that it was past Nine o’clock and it would be closed. The rules! Oh, well! But I was not sleepy and I needed some walk. I wondered around a bit, but I was careful not to go too far alone in the night. Besides, I wanted to keep my coordinates right so that I could trace the hotel back. Once I lost my way in Hong Kong while I was walking from one street to the other. However, in Hong Kong, language was not a problem, I asked people to get the direction to get back to the hotel. But in Hue, it’s a different story. I could see most of the shops are being closed, the streets are kind of empty and my senses told me to play safe in an unknown place. I always do. Within half an hour, I was back to the hotel. As always, I packed my suitcase before I went to the bed. I never keep it hanging for the next morning. I am leaving for Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.

I woke up in a cloudy morning. There was rain last night. I could see from my window that roads and cluster of buildings close to my hotel are wet from the rain. I took shower, got ready and went for the breakfast. I always eat a good breakfast every morning, because I am not so sure where my next meal would come from. After the breakfast, I checked out from the hotel. Sam and my driver were waiting outside. Sam was explaining to me the plan that we would visit the citadel first and from there we would head out to the airport. I had some reservations about the plan. Don’t get me wrong, I do like history, but I am not a history buff. My main interests are the Nature and the people. I was not keen on spending the whole morning visiting the citade. I told Sam,

“No Sam, I wouldn’t go to the citadel first, I want to see the city”.

“But that was not the plan”, Sam tried to explain to me

“Well, plans do change”, I told flatly. “I haven’t had a chance to see the city and landmarks. To me, that is important and that is the Hue I would like to see, not only the yesterday’s Hue.”

Sam was not a happy camper. He didn’t say much, but when we were driving, I realized he already made up his mind! We were going to the citadel. The driver parked the car near the main entrance of the citadel. I was pissed, but I said nothing. Ah well, I was not going to ruin my tour by squabbling with the ‘smartass’! The driver took the car to the exit door of the citadel. Sam was walking quietly, away from me. I didn’t show much emotion either. Well, let’s see the history then!

The Imperial City or the citadel is magnificent. It was built around 1804 AD when the then emperor decided to build a citadel similar to the style of the Forbidden City in China. But the citadel is different than the Forbidden City in many ways. It is surrounded by a 10 km perimeter wall of stones. And a moat surrounds the perimeter wall. Most of the buildings inside the citadel were empty. A group were playing a children’s play on a stage. School children were watching the play with much interest. We crossed that area and I was following Sam who was walking in front of me keeping some distance. There was nothing much else to see inside and we came close to the exit gate. I asked Sam to show me the city around in the car. So we crossed though the city, stopped occasionally, only to be reminded by Sam that we would be late. The schools and building were interesting. We stopped close to the school where Ho Chi Minh studied at one time. Apparently, Hue has the most colleges where many students from the South Vietnam come to study. Ho Chi Minh also spent a good part of his yesterdays in Hue before moving to the North. I was absorbing the sights and sounds of the city as much as I could in a short time. I glanced at my watch. No, I have to cut it short; I asked Sam how long should we spend in the city before we head out towards the airport. Sam told me, we were already driving towards the airport direction. I have to catch a noon time flight to the Ho Chi Minh City.

We left the city boundary and we were driving towards the airport. The airport is some 15 km away from the city center. The road to the airport is fairly empty and the driver was driving at a slow speed due to strict speed restrictions. I was getting worried as I didn’t know how far the airport is. The car took a turn to a side road and we were suddenly right in front of the airport terminal. It’s a small airport and only few domestic flights operate from here. Sam carried my luggage to the terminal. I asked him to hand me over the luggage for check-in. He wouldn’t give it to me and instead, he stood in the line up to check-in. I was totally surprised because I am the passenger and he is not. Anyway, there is no point arguing with him while standing in a check-in counter. So I offered him my electronic ticket. Sam ignored my request suggesting that he does not need the ticket as the airport desk would know my name. I couldn’t make head or tail, but when Sam’s turn came, I was by his side. Once checked-in, Sam asked me to fill up a review form which I did. I told them “good bye” and headed towards the airport. Very strange man, I thought about Sam! Sometimes I think he might be overreacting, but then I remember what he told me – it’s part of his duty. May be it is and perhaps he takes his job quite seriously. Anyway, he is young and he is energetic. He is sincere making his living in this profession in the Hue-Da Nang- Hoi An route. I wish him well in his life!

The flight was slightly delayed. In the waiting lounge, I stepped into a store and bought a CD of few Vietnamese songs. I don’t know who the singer is, I don’t know the language either, but whenever I heard any Vietnamese song during the trip, I liked the tunes. It’s a souvenir alright and it will be a memory for days to come. I heard my flight being announced and slowly I joined the line up for boarding. I saw a glimpse of the Hue city from my window seat at take off. It was a cloudy day and soon the city of Hue below disappeared under a sheet of cloud. I leaned back on the seat.

Next is Ho Chi Minh City!

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12th November 2017

Fabulous trip
I see my brother on your image - on the top of Hai Van pass and try to read your post. It really detail and give me more to improve our services.

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