Thursday, 11 October 2012

Central Vietnam

Hue is the capital of the central province of Thua Thien and was the imperial capital city during 1802 – 1945. Much of the imperial city still remains and can be found in area called the citadel on one side of the wide perfume river, on the other side of the river is what’s called the new city which is where most of the guesthouses are and also where most local businesses set up shop. We found an amazing guesthouse (one of the best we have stayed in so far) for a decent price in the new city just off of the main backpacker strip. Most cities throughout South East Asia which sit on tourist trail seem to have a street dedicated solely to catering to the whims of backpackers, and Hue is no different.

It was great to be out of the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and we quickly set out to explore Hue. We walked from our hotel across a steel bridge to the old side of the river and approached the citadel. The citadel was huge and you could walk for hours and hours amongst the many ruins. Most of the citadel was destroyed during the Vietnam war but the people of Hue have set about renovating the entire place. Some buildings still remain, the palace being the most prominent and other buildings are nothing more than rubble. It was interesting to see so many Vietnamese workers painting and constructing, they really won’t be beaten. It was sad to see a poor elephant within the grounds of the citadel being used to give tourists rides, this was probably the first time we had seen this since learning about the industry in Chiang Mai and we were disappointed to see it going on here, but there is very little to be done. The citadel was an afternoon well spent but it was piping hot and we were tired from our fourteen hour train journey so after a little exploring we headed on back to our hotel.

Outside of visiting the citadel we mainly used Hue to relax. We hadn’t just chilled out for a day in such a long time that we decided we had earned a day of rest. We did go for a stroll on our second day and ended up in a rural village just outside of the city. We could hear children's singing coming from a school and we saw people in Vietnamese straw hats farming their fields. Mostly we just went for food and relaxed around the hotel though, nothing interesting enough to spend too much time on here. On checking out of our hotel the following morning we were humbled to receive beautiful gifts from the owner. She was a lovely old lady who gave us two magnets and a bracelet each and wished us well on our journey, thanking us for staying at her hotel. We took a bus for four hours through the countryside to our next destination Hoi An.

Hoi An is also in central Vietnam in Quang Nam province and is much smaller than Hue. It was recently recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site and it certainly lives up to the title. Hoi An ancient town spans about three blocks from a quaint river and is a spectacularly well-preserved trading town. It dates back well into the 15th century and some of the buildings whilst obviously renovated still stand today. When we arrived we had a destination in mind, a hotel that had been recommended to us by our previous hotel. It took about ten steps towards town before the heavens opened, our shoddy umbrellas didn’t help much, by the time we got to the hotel, the entrance was flooded. Hoi An is renowned for its flooding, it even holds the title of worst flooding in recent history. The hotel was so accommodating though, for a budget hotel this place was amazing. When we arrived we were offered home made tea and coconut cakes and we were shown to our room, after that they invited us to dinner with everyone in the hotel completely free of charge. This is almost unheard of in budget hotels, this wasn’t some resort, this was a small little family business and they were just so nice. We sat at the table and talked to all of the other travelers  There were two guys from England travelling through Vietnam for two weeks, another couple from England who were doing an extended trip much like Natalie and I, a couple from Germany who were way into their adventure travel, and a solo traveller from Belfast. The guy from Belfast was driving a motorcycle from South to North Vietnam. He had a few interesting stories to tell, but most of all what was interesting to hear about were the road laws, basically there aren’t any. It is however illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam without a licence, or if you’re a foreigner. So, the police like to do random checks, usually the fine is 200,000dong but police have been known to charge foreigners way more than this and because of language barriers and the like there is really nothing you can do outside of paying up.

The food was delicious all of which was home-made and included lots of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. We spent the night in the hotel to avoid the rain and by the time we awoke in the morning the weather had taken a turn for the better. The sun was out and it was boiling, the hottest it had been across our whole trip. We bought a ticket which allowed us entry into five of the tourist attractions in the ancient town. We went to the museum of history and culture, an old assembly hall, an old house, and a manufacturing workshop. We still have our fifth ticket, unused. The architecture was all beautiful and although we didn’t spend too long at each attraction we got a flavour of what life used to be like in the ancient town. You could walk around the town for ages, there are spiraling narrow alleyways that meander along to hidden shops and secret restaurants, there are small houses with lanterns hanging outside, old markets with old ladies selling fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s tough to give a true sense of how it felt to walk along the lanes and sidewalks. By night you could buy candle lanterns and float them along the river, the whole of the ancient town was lit up by lanterns and bicycles meandered along the pathways and over ancient bridges, it was like stepping back in time, just with souvenir shops.   

On our second day we went to the beach, and despite seeing a dead dog washed up on the shore without its head, and plenty of dead fish along the same lines it was rather picturesque, they were probably washed up because of the storm we got caught in, you can read about the storm at the end of my previous blog. We had seafood on the beach and walked along looking at all the sea life (mostly dead sea life) but really it was a good time despite getting caught in a huge thunderstorm. We spent a lot of evenings strolling around ancient town and soaking up the atmosphere of the place. Hoi An is truly a unique place an we’re glad we decided to go there as originally we hadn’t planned too.

We also decided to change our plans for our next destination and skip Nha Trang, a coastal beach town that caters to tourists whose sole purpose of visiting the place is catching a suntan. We decided instead to head to Dalat a cool and serine mountain city, something completely different from the other places we had experienced in Vietnam. We left Hoi An late at night and shared a taxi to Danang (Vietnam’s third largest city about forty minutes out of Hoi An) with Louise from Australia and Sarah and Stefan from Germany, we have met a lot of Germans on this trip. Sebina from Luang Prabang has even invited us to see her for a weekend in Hamburg which we may take her up on sometime. 

The train to Nha Trang was about eleven hours and unfortunately we couldn’t get in a four-berth soft sleeper as there were none left, so we were booked into a six-berth hard sleeper. We were in a carriage with four Vietnamese people and by gum were they annoying. Not only did they get up at 5:30am for breakfast (which stunk) seriously who has pot noodle for breakfast? They played music from their phones and were just generally annoying, but we also had the top bunks which meant we had absolutely no head room at all. Luckily, we did sleep, a little but by the time we got to Nha Trang the next morning we were knackered. We only had about four hours in Nha Trang before we caught our bus to Dalat, we spent the time relaxing on the beach and trying to regain our energy. We were glad we had decided to skip Nha Trang as there really wasn’t much to do there and it wasn’t really our scene.

We’re in Dalat now and this place is gorgeous. We made a really good decision to come here and we’ve just had one of our best days so far, which I’ll be sure to write about in my next post. As usual I’ve written this very quickly so you’ll have to excuse any errors. We don’t have much longer left in Vietnam and I think we’re going to spend most of our time here in Dalat as it is so amazing. I hope that’s given you at least a small insight into what we’ve been up too, we have many more stories to tell and we’re still enjoying ourselves. I think it's time for dinner now, I can't get enough of the food here. So,  bon appetit, or as the Vietnamese chopstick holders like to say 'good appetite'.  

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