A whirlwind tour of Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, and My Son

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May 25th 2006
Published: May 28th 2006
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We arrived in Hue on Saturday on a Vietnamese Airlines flight from Hanoi. Considering that we had booked a flight for Wednesday afternoon to get us from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, time was always going to be in short supply in central Vietnam: we were hoping to visit Hue's Citadel, as well as the tombs of the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, located along the Perfume River south of the city; the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang; the old town of Hoi An; and the Cham ruins at My Son. This would have provided us with a busy schedule even if we would not have had to deal with the inflexibilities of travelling by public transport...In order to get from Hue to Da Nang, we were hoping to travel by train on what is supposed to be one of the most spectacular stretches of Vietnam's rail network. When we got to the train station in Hue to reserve tickets, we soon found out that all the trains in the direction of Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City pass through Hue either in the middle of the night or in the morning. The best option for us turned out to be to take the train the next morning at 10.30 am, which left us with only an afternoon, an evening, and a night in Hue. Unfortunately, we would have to drop either the Citadel or the tombs, in order to be able to see the other at a reasonable pace. We decided to visit the Citadel, and to leave the Emperor's tombs for a future visit to Vietnam.

Hue's Citadel used to be the seat of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1804 until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favour of the revolutionary Viet Minh government led by Ho Chin Minh. Unfortunately, the Citadel was bombed and heavily damaged in fighting between the Viet Cong and the Americans / South Vietnamese Army during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The emperor's official functions were carried out in the Imperial Enclosure; a great complex of gates, ceremonial halls, and gardens; which was supposedly modelled on Beijing's Forbidden City. This part of the Citadel is nowadays open to the public as a protected monument, whereas the rest of the Citadel is still used in the daily life of the inhabitants of Hue. Although I found the comparison with Beijing's Forbidden City hard to see, and parts of the enclosure were the scene of building/renovation works, the beauty and size of the Citadel were nonetheless impressive. If I ever visit the Citadel again, I would prefer the weather to be better however: Hue's weather is infamously bad, and we weren't lucky. It rained most of the time when we were out and about. In the evening, we had a very nice meal at La Carambole restaurant close to our hotel.

On Sunday we had a rather quiet morning, before making our way to the train station by xe om (which is always tricky when we have to take our luggage on the motorcycle!). A slight annoyance with the train being delayed was met with relief when we slumped into our very comfortable seats in the AC carriage of the train. The view on the way turned out to be quite nice, but not nearly as spectacular as we had hoped: we were sitting on the wrong side of the carriage, and a pillar was partially blocking the view on our side. We did get a rather good free meal though and managed to buy some nice sate sticks and spring rolls. Unfortunately, Phil did not quite get to enjoy his email as much as I did: he knocked-over his tray, spilling food over his clothes, his seat, and the floor, and was understandably very annoyed.

In Da Nang, Vietnam's fourth largest city, we visited the Museum of Cham Scultpure. The Kingdom of Champa flourished in the the coastal regions of what is now central and south Vietnam from the 7th century A.D. until the 17th century. Nowadays, the kingdom is best known for its unique culture, the spiritual origins of which lay in Indian Hinduism. Da Nang's museum houses what is supposedly the finest collection of Cham sculpture to be found anywhere in the world. We really enjoyed the museum, and more than once I realised that I would not have been surprised to see the pieces in a museum in India.

After visiting the museum we arranged for some motorbikes to drive us to Hoi An, some 40 kilometers southeast of Da Nang. On the way, we made a brief stop at the Marble Mountains, where several Buddhist temples have been built into natural caves in the hillside. The view of the surrounding countryside was well worth the demanding climb. When we finally arrived in Hoi An, after a rather long time on the motorcycles, we were yearning for a comfortable hotel room, and checked into the Vinh Hunh 1 Hotel. As a simple twin room was no longer available, we decided to treat ourselves for the night to one of the nicer rooms in the hotel, which we managed to get at a knock-down rate of $40. Apparently Michael Caine stayed in the very same room when filming some scenes in The Quiet American. Nice to know, but hardly as spectacular as the hotel staff make it out to be. The room was spaceous though, decorated with antiques, and had a double canopy bed each for myself and Phil. Luxury... Only for one night though, as we had already arranged to move to a cheaper room the next morning. In the evening, we had dinner at Cafe des Amis. The restaurant has no menu: you're simply asked whether you'd like to eat vegetarian, meat or seafood. We decided to go for seafood and were served a cheap yet delicious 6-course meal. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Kim, came to our table regularly to show how each dish should be eaten (what sauce etc.) before reminding us at the end of our meal that the menu is different every evening.

On Monday, feeling fresh after one of my best night's sleep on the entire trip, we set out to explore the Old Town of Hoi An. Unfortunately the town's small size combined with its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it a very popular tourist destination. From the minute you arrive it becomes apparent that the whole town is geared towards tourism, which I found a bit of a pitty; when visiting Vietnam I don't really fancy being surrounded by countless Western Europeans and hearing Dutch spoken on every street corner. The town is impressive though, and has many old houses, assembly halls, museums, temples etc. worth a visit. We opted for the Japanese Covered Bridge, the Old House of Phung Hung, the spectacular Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, and the very boring Hoi An Museum of Histiry & Culture, before retiring to the swimming pool of the Vinh Hunh Resort, which we could use free of charge. For dinner, we went back to Cafe des Amis, where we once again ate very well under the friendly guidance of Mr. Kim.

A visit to Da Nang and Hoi An would not be complete without a trip to the nearby Cham ruins at My Son. My Son was a religious center of the Champa Kingdom, with over 70 buildings constructed between the 4th and 12th centuries. We had been warned that it tends to get rather busy at the ruins when several daily busses arive mid-morning from Da Nang and Hoi An. To beat the crowds, we woke up very early on Tuesday morning and took xe oms to My Son, about 40 km west of Hoi An. The drive was wonderful: seldom have I seen more picturesque countryside! Regularly compared to a small-scale Angkor Wat, the ruins didn't disappoint either. Careful not to stray too far from the paths (the jungle that surrounds the ruins still hides mines from the war), I had a great time exploring the site in peace and quiet, and could only smirk when the busses arrived just as we were getting ready to head back to Hoi An.

After chilling out in Hoi An in the afternoon, we went to a cooking class at the Hai Scout Cafe in the evening. We were taught how to make grilled fish in banana leaves, hand-made spring rolls, and squid salad by what must be the funniest chef in the world, before indulging in the food we prepared. It turned out to be a fun evening, and I can't wait to try to recreate the different dishes at home.

On Wednesday our time in central Vietnam had unfortunately, too quickly, run out. Around lunchtime, we took a taxi to Da Nang, followed by a Pacific Airlines flight to Saigon. I do hope to revisit central Vietnam some time, as the area has far more to offer than we could put into our itinerary this time around!

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29th May 2006

keep reading your journals! good luck!

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