* to my friends in the Boston area, I’ll be thinking of you and your 8 feet of snow as I spend the next week on a beach…not to be mean or anything. *
After my adventures in the northern parts of Vietnam (Hanoi, Sapa, Ha Long Bay), it was time to check out the central region of the country. This is an area with names familiar to those who have studied 20th century history, as it was the site of many battles during the French and American wars (as they are known over here). While the scars are still visible, there is much more to the area then just recent history.
I arrived in Danang (the only airport in the region) and spent a day there. Danang is…a city. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s no real reason to stay either. Only a couple of sites in town itself, none worth an exceptional effort to see, and while the city is a decent base for day trips, they are easily done from other, more interesting cities. I spent a day because I needed to figure out my plans, do some laundry (the bane of a single suitcase traveler) and just rest. It was also interesting to see a city that had very little focus on tourism; while there were still plenty of options for the traveler, you could sense that the city was meant for locals, and that was reassuring in a way.
After taking my day off, I took the train up to Hue. This train travels over the Hai Van Pass, famous for its views. If you want a good video overview of the road, the BBC show Top Gear did a show several years back that shows it off (along with other parts of Vietnam). The scenery from the train windows was pretty, but it was a very grey day, so not as nice as it could have been. Ah well…can’t expect everything. I arrived in Hoi An and encountered a phalanx of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers outside the entrance, who literally couldn’t comprehend my willingness to walk the 3km to the hotel. One guy looked so confused that I didn’t want a ride, I almost felt sorry for him. Ah well.
The next morning, I walked over to the Imperial City or Citadel. Hue is the former capital of Vietnam, from the early 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. The Citadel was where the Emperor and his family, and the seat of government. It’s interesting to walk around, as some of the buildings have been preserved and repaired, while others have come apart and only show hints of their former stature. In some places, you can see bullet holes from the battles fought here. There is a video recreation and tour of what the complex was like when it was freshly built, which gives you an idea of the grandeur that was once there. Walking around the site is peaceful and interesting, and well worth a morning.
The other things to see in Hue are largely outside of town, requiring a tour guide with a motorbike or tuk-tuk. For various reasons (money, temperature, lack of interest) I decided to pass on these, and spent the afternoon relaxing in the city. These sites are temples and pagodas, which while interesting, have started to feel very repetitive. I think this is one downside to seeing the entire region in one trip – you start to lose track of the differences between places, and everything blends together. I did enjoy seeing the city, and had some very tasty food.
The next day, I took a 4 hour bus back down past Danang to Hoi An. While the bus ride goes through a tunnel and thus misses the Hai Van Pass, it is significantly cheaper and less time-consuming than a private car. Can’t have everything. Hoi An was a long stop; I was there for 6 days! I really wanted to stop moving around for a bit, and have some time to relax and just not have any pressure. This turned out to be a great decision, as it was a wonderful place for relaxing. The town is very touristy, with many restaurants and bars, in addition to the tailoring shops they are famous for. I did end up getting two custom shirts made. Not sure if it’s really worth it…I mean the shirts are nice and I’m happy with them, and it was definitely cheaper than something custom-made in the US, but I think fancy clothing (suits, dresses) is probably a more interesting purchase. I have decided on a shopping rule – if someone shouts at me to come in their shop, I leave. Sorry, but I just can’t handle the sales tactics. Both places where I bought something, they left me alone until I looked like I wanted help.
While in Hoi An, I met a family friend for coffee and then for lunch a few days later, which was very nice. It was interesting to hear his perspective on living in Vietnam, and to ask some of the questions I had been wondering about. For example: the tuk-tuk drivers everywhere? Apparently, the locals don’t walk. As in, if it’s more than a block away, they get the motorbike. This at least explains the confusion I mentioned earlier – it’s a totally different expectation! I’m so used to walking everywhere, that a 3km hike with my bag sounds tiring but perfectly acceptable. For them, it’s incomprehensible.
I’m going to make an observation here that could be completely wrong, based as it is on very limited exposure and time, but I feel so strongly that it’s worth mentioning. Vietnam, for all of its faults, seems to me to be trying harder than the other countries in the area. As in, they are spending a significant amount of money on infrastructure, trying to form an economy that isn’t solely based on tourism and agriculture (though it still is at the moment), and the people just generally seem more optimistic about the future than in other places. I met a young man in Saigon who I spent an hour talking to, and he was explaining how school worked, he wanted to visit the US for advanced schooling, start a company building things, etc. Contrast that with the man I was talking with in Cambodia who basically said “The entire government is corrupt, what can I do” (he’s not wrong unfortunately). I’m not saying that anyone should go out and invest their life savings or anything, it was just something that I kept reflecting on.
While in Hoi An, in addition to many hours spent sitting reading and sipping beverages of various sorts (who knew watermelon juice was so addictive), I went to a cooking class. This class was very fun, not least because after a brief morning market tour, you board a boat for 45 minutes as they take you down the river. It was fun to see some non-city stuff! We ended up cooking several dishes: Goi Cuon (fresh salad rolls), Banh Xeo (Vietnamese crepes filled with various things), Bun Bo (beef salad with rice and herbs and other things), and Pho Bo Hanoi. All were delicious. The pho wasn’t quite as good as what I had elsewhere, probably because the broth only cooked for an hour. Still very tasty!! I’m looking forward to trying some of these new recipes when I get home.
I visited a local silk village, where you can see how silk has been harvested and used by the local tribes for hundreds of years. Although no different from many other places, it was still interesting to see, and a worthwhile diversion. I tasted many of the local specialties: Cao Lau, a dark broth with pork and noodles; Mi Quang, a similar noodle dish but with a different flavor base; white rose dumplings, which are filled with shrimp and formed into the shape of a rose blossom, and of course the local variety of Banh Mi sandwiches. Cao Lau is absolutely fantastic and I will need to replicate it at home, because…just yum. The Banh Mi was also delicious, my favorite was from the Banh Mi Queen. This is a street stall run by a woman who is approximately 173 years old, has one expression on her face no matter what you say or do, and makes the most delicious sandwiches you’ve ever tasted. Seriously, I ordered one, ate it, and then ordered another. Then I came back the next day. It was amazing.
After my relaxing time in Hoi An, it was finally time to pack up and get ready for the trip to Saigon!