Central Coast Vietnam: Huế and Hội An
From Sapa,we took the bus back to Hanoi where we spent the night before catching a short flight to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.
From the shuttle bus, Hue looked like a more manageable city. Busy, interesting, but less chaotic than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Many Vietnamese people travel here, and even the tourist neighborhoods pandered less to western expectations and preferences, and the city felt more like a city than an “America theme park,” as some tourist areas end up feeling.
Hue is known for being the former Imperial capital, where the Vietnamese royal families ruled since the early 19th century, and continued to sit nominally until emperor Bao Dai famously abdicated in favour Ho Chi Minh’s communist movement.
Kilometres south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), Hue was the location of large battles and massive destruction during the Vietnam War, with countless bodies said to be resting beneath the large concrete sidewalk stones. Much of the city including parts of the Citadel—the imperial palace—were destroyed by American bombing.
We arrived and walked to our hotel. The DMZ hotel was uncomfortably named and decorated in mostly camouflage. The room numbers on the doors were surrounded by cartoon explosions. Overlooking the military kitsch, the room was comfortable and spacious and had the best-stocked mini-bar we’ve encountered yet.
The first night we went for a walk around the city. Our scam-radar has become very touchy, so when a Vietnamese man asked us if we wanted to have dinner with him and if we had any Canadian coins for him to give to his family we hastily withdrew from what may have been an entirely innocent, though awkward, invitation.
Later, at the DMZ bar—where we got 10% off and which was also uncomfortably decorated—we sat next to a guy from Ho Chi Minh with whom we made broken small talk for a few minutes before he asked us to help split a table keg with him and his friends. A table keg is an invitation that cannot be declined, no matter the circumstances. We accepted, and he suggested we add him on Facebook because he was heading home before going out again, either to the bar or a friend’s house, and he thought we might like to join. We agreed—because he bought us a table keg—but we hoped he would forget about us. He didn’t. Hours later after a barrage of calls, clingy text messages, and unprompted sad emojis we replied from our hotel bed that we were on the other side of town and went to sleep at 9 p.m., a decision more aligned with our style than getting drunk with strangers. We wondered if our confusion over this interaction was simply a product of cultural differences in friendship making norms, or whether we had inadvertently stumbled upon a very clingy (and very drunk) man.
The next day we visited the Imperial Citadel. Admission is 150,000 VND each. It was enjoyable, and impossible to miss while in Hue, but it was hot and there wasn’t much information available to guide us through the grounds. We accessed an information page on my cellphone that helped explain many of the buildings.
The compound is massive, and much was destroyed in the war and since restored. Only the emperor’s library room—now a gift shop—was undamaged, though still many times restored. The palace is large and walled. Perhaps it’s about four of five city blocks large, and it contained a throne room, a court for imperial ceremonies, residences for the royal family and royal extended family, and a tennis court.
They say one of the emperors was curious about western sport and he built a tennis court where he could indulge his curiosities. As fascinating as this is, it is even more interesting that when the court was restored it was replaced with an entirely modern tennis facility, with a chain link enclosure and small, plastic spectator seating area. It looks fantastically out of place among its centuries-old surroundings. Perhaps something was lost in the construction orders?
Also at the citadel we saw the largest gold-fish we had ever seen—hundreds of trout-sized fish the colour of Buddhist monk robes chaotically swirling in the small moat surrounding a small palace park area with stone benches and small gardens, perhaps where young princes went on walks learning how to rule a kingdom à la Game of Thrones.
If you’d like to get a sense of Vietnamese traffic, with hundreds of motorbikes dancing around each other in chaotic unity, you only need to watch a school of excited, too-large fish in a too-small pond, weaving and slipping around each other, completely confident while also clueless to what exactly is going on around them.
After the citadel, we stopped for lunch at Lac Thien for some of the most delicious spring rolls we had yet tasted and a long-awaited beer. The Vietnamese are the most cunningly capitalist communists I could ever imagine. A family next door named their restaurant Lac Than—a respected establishment in its own right, I’m told, owned by a charming deaf gentleman—which poaches barely-literate customers from their better known but similarly named neighbour.
The next day we woke early for some Vietnamese breakfast at a restaurant that makes a famously good pot of the famous Hue soup dish, Bun Bo Hue, every morning and sells out as early as 8 or 9 a.m. The soup was exceptional, like all Vietnamese soups had been so far, but neither of us warmed up to the signature ingredient—coagulated blood cakes.
That day was also the beginning of the Mid-Autumn full moon festival. The festival celebrates the end of rice harvest and is second to Tet in cultural significance. Activities during Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival include the following: 1) ceremonially burning incense and fake bank notes—choking city streets with so much smoke it would pose a health risk if everyone wasn’t already used to cigarettes and street-side garbage fires, 2) kids banging drums in enchanting rhythms that become less enchanting the longer you have been trying to sleep through it, and 3) young boys dancing in the street wearing extravagant lion and dragon costumes, infuriating taxi drivers who are blocked by the show and soon encircled by spectators.
After our short stay in Hue, we boarded the Reunification Express train bound for Da Nang.
We took the train from Hue to Da Nang, and decided to take the local bus south to our destination, Hoi An, to save a couple bucks. We had read that the bus-man is determined to charge foreigners 50,000 VND, about $2 more than the posted ticket price of $20,000 VND, and that was entirely accurate. Despite amusing efforts by the bus man to hide what other passengers were paying, we clearly say them handing over the posted price. Then he waited until we were off the bus, unable to see the price posted on the door, and demanded 50,000 VND from each of us. I half-heartedly argued but soon gave in to this blatant tourist tax.
We then foolishly accepted an overpriced ride form a motorcycle taxi who quoted us 3 times what a taxi should have costed and then demanded even more money once we arrived. Again, not wanting to argue and without any smaller change anyway, I gave in to the scam partially out of politeness and partially out of shame for falling for it in the first place. In all, our journey to Hoi An cost about $1 less than a private car would have cost to take us from the Da Nang train station to the hotel door in Hoi An.
Our hotel in Hoi an was beautiful and we finally got to pull our bathing suits out of the depths of our backpacks and enjoy our first dip in a pool since we arrived in Vietnam. Hoi An is much more obvious in its catering to western tourists. Coffee shops and restaurants line the streets of old town which itself feels acutely like an Asian-themed amusement park more than a city in Vietnam. The streets were awash with white folks bouncing from tailor shops to cafés to gelato-joints, who we joined in a rather fruitless search for good coffee.
Mid-Autumn festival was really hitting its stride now, and the road from our hotel to downtown became choked with a noxious quantity of black, unbreathable smoke and left us running between patches of clear air, breath held, and waking up with sore throats and years removed from our lifespans.
Most hotels in Hoi An loan out bikes, and we rode the 5 or 6 km to the beach outside of town. What used to be a quiet and out-of-the-way beach, Ang Bang beach became the only option in Hoi an after the nearby Cua Dai beach was all but washed away by a typhoon in 2014.
On the road to Ang Bang, vendors swarm, mid pedal, demanding you park your bikes at their shops in exchange for a small purchase as they say they insist that you cannot continue or park any nearer to the beach. After weaving through them, we turned down the side last possible left turn before the beach begins where we found many alleyways leading to the seaside where bikes could easily be leaned against a fence for free.
We walked the beach for a while and regretted not wearing bathing suits. Then peddled over to Cua Dai beach where we found a place to sit and enjoy some beer while watching the waves crash against the massive sandbags that now line the coast, protecting the seaside buildings after the beach evaporated two years ago.
Also in Hoi An we took a fun free bike tour with local students who offer the tours to practice English. We took a ferry to an island in the middle of the weaving river channels where they build the wooden boats found throughout the waterways of the area. We also saw a small noodle-making operation and Liz reluctantly wore a Vietnamese bamboo hat which she had previously resolved never to do.
After our time in Hoi An, we boarded a plane in Da Nang bound for Can Tho, the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and a city whose name we never said because we were incapable of creating the right sounds with our mouths to make it intelligible to a Vietnamese person.
UP NEXT: Mekong Delta: Can Tho and Chau Doc.