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Published: October 15th 2012
We’d decided long ago to travel Vietnam from south to north, overland. We’d envisaged making reasonably rapid progress on sleeper trains, similar to our experience in Thailand. Then we bought $45 bus passes, entitling us to travel the one thousand miles from Saigon to Hanoi, on buses in various states of disrepair, with numerous stops on the way.
So our journey took us to the better-known destinations, but didn’t allow for much getting off the beaten track. In central Vietnam, we surprised ourselves by enjoying the seaside resort city of Na Trang; fell in love with the simple beauty of Hoi An and marvelled at majesty and history in Hue.
It’s difficult to imagine three cities in one country that are more different. Different in a good way, not simply different like Milton Keynes, Middlesbrough or Barnsley are. (Do we have readers from any of those places? Not anymore.)
We’d heard mixed reviews about Na Trang, but it provided an opportunity to submerge ourselves in twenty metres of sea water and look at fish and coral, so we took the plunge and stayed for a few days. Plus, the bus stopped there.
There aren’t are whole lot
of thing to do above water in Na Trang, besides lounging on the beach and hitting the bars and clubs, but, with careful planning we managed to do the best bits, and get out before it all got too much.
Large parts of Vietnam were formerly the Champa kingdom, regional rivals to the Khmers around one thousand years ago. From 15th
century onwards, the Cham people were defeated, persecuted, and subsequently driven out of what became Vietnam. Further killer blows were inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. As many as half a million Chams were murdered in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Traces of Cham history are not particularly easy to find in Vietnam. There is, though, a collection of ancient brick towers in Na Trang. We paid a cursory visit, admired the fairly well-preserved towers, without getting a real insight into this lost civilisation. Young dancers performed, but it wasn’t clear to our untrained eyes whether this was a Vietnamese or Cham tradition.
Without instruction from us, our taxi-driver cannily waited outside, and so was on hand to take us to the nearby mud-baths, where we wallowed in various types of water and mud, possibly for longer than
The band play on at Cham Towers
As the dancers exit at the rear.
advisable. We were relieved to read, therefore, on a sign near the jacuzzi, that we were ‘being insured’. Against what, and by whom, were never learnt. Nevertheless, it was reassuring, especially with so much water, mud and shrieking Vietnamese around.
Connected to the mainland near Na Trang by a two mile long cable car, is Hon Tre Island, home to Vinpearl Land, an expensive (by Vietnamese reckoning) but thoroughly entertaining amusement park. Where else can you partake in a seemingly suicidal toboggan ride, have a near death experience on a water slide, and gawp around an aquarium so impressive that you willingly gawp round it again? Quite a few places probably, but we did so for an enjoyable day at Vinpearl Land.
A few hundred miles north, in Hoi An, time slows down considerably. Unless you’re one of this magical little city’s innumerable tailors, for whom the days are presumably filled knocking off suits and dresses at knock-down prices for western tourists. Siem Reap has Dr Fish, Na Trang has Easy Rider motorcycle tours, but Hoi An may be the king of the copycat, with tailors, cookery schools and ‘fresh beer’ on every street. But rather than being
Performance on Hoi An street corner
an irritant, it simply adds to the charm, with the ventures housed in beautifully-maintained teak buildings, echoing the area's colonial and pre-colonial history. We crammed into narrow but uncluttered cobbled alleys, home to weaving cyclists and playing children, and strolled around the old town, perched on lazy slender river.
We visited a few of the old buildings, learnt a little about Hoi An’s history and its frequent floods, and were lucky enough to be there for a full moon festival. Hundreds of lanterns were lit and dropped from the pretty bridge to the river, moving inland and then out to sea with the changing tide. We drank glasses of beer costing thirteen pence and all was good.
If all that were not enough, Hoi An is only a short cycle from a beautiful beach, and from there, a short boat ride to the charming Cham Islands, home to more beautiful beaches, a small population and the scene of our final scuba dives of the trip.
We didn’t want it to end, but with flights from Hanoi to Athens already booked, and more to see in Vietnam, we had to press on to Hue, probably the best place
Odd one out
Shutters in the Forbidden City, Hue
in Vietnam to soak in what remains of the country’s pre-colonial dynastic past. By this time of the year, June, it was so hot that we organised ourselves sufficiently to be at the ancient citadel by 8am. We spent a nevertheless sweaty two hours wandering around the shade-free Forbidden City, wondering what exactly we were supposed to be looking for, and finding lots on the way, including, incongruously, a tennis court.
The extraordinarily extravagant tombs of Khai Dinh and Minh Mang provided much wonder and some shade, which is just as well as the former is up numerous steeps steps and the latter covers an area equal to several football fields. The inside of Khai Dinh’s final resting place is particularly opulent affair, with every square centimetre adorned with paintings, sculpture or jewels.
As for what lies between this old capital, and the current one, Hanoi, we’re not really sure, as we travelled overnight by bus, for thankfully the final time. Faulty air con, no curtains, seatbelts or water – next time, it’s the sleeper train.
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