Vietnam: The North and the H’s: Hoi An, Hue

Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
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Trip End Aug 31, 2011


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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Thursday, December 20, 2012

Night busses are often not fun but when you are squashed next to three other biggish guys at the back of the bus (with of course one loud snorer), the aircon blowing from cold to hot, throw in lots of unscheduled stops so the driver can make personal house calls and I'm sure some personal pickup deliveries for some extra cash it generally culminates in zero sleep and a cranky journey. Thankfully our entry into the outskirts of Hoi An was pleasant as the mist covered rice fields and rising sun painted a pleasant landscape with the early morning sun already threatening to quickly burn away the low clouds.

Hoi An

The beautiful small town known for cheap tailoring and recognized as a World UNESCO heritage site and still molded on old houses and Japanese and Chinese influences is quaint but enjoyable to explore too. Once I arrived and decided to book into the nearest hotel, after arranging a small deal, the short walk to the main town is continually interrupted by traders and salespeople on bikes all looking for business and try to lure you in to one of the tailors to arrange for a new suit or three. The hotel by the way includes a pool , free bicycle use and the coveted buffet breakfast and although it’s a bit further from town its closer to the beaches (sitting on the South China Sea) so all in all a good compromise.

I was very tired after the bus trip but didn’t want to miss out on the breakfast on offer and afterwards had a shower before exploring the town. The highlights in the town include the Japanese bridge, a tourist attraction on the river in the centre of town. Sitting afloat on the central river parting the town are old anchored wooden boats while coloured and stylish old houses line the streets and shoreline. Thankfully the weather was also great which helped highlight the contrasting colours as the place might be a bit more boring in cold and rainy weather.

I ventured back to the hostel, rented the bicycle and rode the 15 minutes to the beach passing rice fields before hitting the beach which was well stocked with bars and lounge chairs but I moved a bit further down where it was less busy for a fantastic relaxing afternoon.

Earlier in the day I had bumped into Germans from the bike trip who had also befriended two Austrian friends on a lengthy trip and I had agreed to meet up with them all in the evening. We made our way to the town for dinner before heading back to the river and Japanese bridge where the lit gaslight lanterns made the place time warp back to days gone past with street performances, merchants selling flying lit toys and a pleasant mix of old and new. We managed to find some drinks deals, although it wasn’t very busy and played some pool  while having drinks and afterwards moved on to another bar where we got chatting to one of the barmaids. She was a bit of  a breath of fresh air as her English was very good but she was also happy to speak openly about everything such as marriage and traditions and it was interesting to hear some refreshing views rather than the ones they want you to hear throughout Vietnam.

The next day I booked a trip to the Myson temple as I felt like I wasn’t doing enough but regretted the decision as the tour was largely boring and not worth the travels; a bus picked me up in the morning followed by an hours’ drive and once we arrived and had the introduction and guidelines the site was very busy with limited interesting information or sightseeing. Although the obvious shell crater marks from the wars which had damaged the temples were of interest as well as the restoration efforts. One interesting footnote with the restoration works was that they have been unable to match the building works from centuries ago especially with longevity as they haven’t been able to replicate the brick work and all new works result in mould but the original works despite being centuries old don’t have any mould! There are also many statues with heads missing as different conquerors defaced and destroyed them.

We walked around for a couple hours and then headed to a nearby river via bus to get a boat back to town, which included lunch but also ended up being a sale stop at local carpenters and other wares so there was a lot of sitting around. In the afternoon as we headed back by boat the rain erupted with a almighty downpour ad we took shelter in the nearby markets before heading back to the hotel where I grabbed some wontons opposite the hotel and l had a good chat with the owner and enjoyed some amazing coffee.

Hue

The next day I opted to move on to Hue which holds the imperial city and is also the former national capital of Vietnam. The bus ride was less eventful and quicker although the weather wasn’t great. I booked a hotel in advance and it was ok, and bumped into 2 South African girls and a Malaysian guy and we headed out to the imperial palace which is the main attraction in the city. The ancient walls and bridges now being ridden on by bikes and cars are quite a sight and the area is massive but with the rain persisting we stopped by a café for lunch which held a steep staircase but amazing food near the river. The area also has many cafes which are run by deaf staff and we passed a street vendor selling all kinds of coloured sweet foods in pots.

That evening I caught up with the Germans and Austrians again and went for dinner and drinks, once again we were all surprised at how quiet it was considering it was peak season. We got chatting again to some of the staff and one girl in particular who is engaged to a French guy as she was very opinionated and we talked about westerners coming to Asia to find wives etc. We ended at the only club open after 11pm which had a small dance floor, some working girls and drunken westerners but we left early enough and I went to bed.

The next day the Germans and Austrians headed to Denang to fly to Hanoi instead of the 14 hour bus trip, while the South Africans headed south so with the weather much improved and I spent a few hours exploring the old quarter and stopped for coffee and chatted to a local guy about the local culture which was very insightful. I moved on to the massive open square and flag flying in the middle of the grounds with old cannons guarding the entrance, quite the sight. Afterwards I walked back to hotel and that evening got supplies for the night bus to Hanoi. Thankfully I learned from my previous night bus and requested a seat not at the back of the bus which meant a easier ride and it enabled me to get a little sleep despite loud music and movies being played on the bus and the guys gambling with cards til the early hours; every bus trip is a experience there.

Hanoi

The staff at the hotel in Hue were great and had a recommended a hotel for me to stay in Hanoi which included a free pickup from the bus stop. Once I arrived at Hanoi however no pickup could be found so managed to make a few calls and the hotel sent someone over and he arrived sometime later to the annoyance of the local taxi drivers who had been hassling me for a while. The Pickup from a hotel was only a guy on a bike so I jumped o with my laptop bag and backpack and we rode helmetless through Hanoi morning rush hour traffic passing all manner of strange morning exercises and stares.  The hotel seemed nice enough and after checking in I went for some much needed coffee and settled into to a nearby street café situated near a intersection in the alleyways of Hanoi which offered a great people watching experience of Hanoi in all its madness. Surprisingly the weather was much cooler than expected and I was not quite ready or prepared for it.

In the late morning I walked to the nearby Hoan Kiem lake which alongside its banks people were exercising, brides to be having all manners of wedding photographs taken and tour groups squashed through the pretty red Huc bridge. I walked down south of the lake and stopped for some fresh baked goods before venturing on to see a couple of museums, of which Hanoi has plenty!

My first educational stop was at the Women’s museum. Of course before quite getting there I had to readjust to Hanoi traffic which is far crazier any other place I have ever been mainly as there are less wide roads and no pavement to walk on as all the bikes are parked on it. The Women’s museum is a mixed bag, a few floors exploring the culture and history, and to be honest some of it was of no interest to me such as the fashions etc but the sections  dealing with the beliefs and the female involvement in different wars and what they have done is quite amazing: Vietnam is built on the strength of its women it seems as they have fulfilled the roles of freedom fighters, spies, farmers, mothers, wives, they have done it all.

Nearby the museum is the Hoa Lo Prison, which was used by French to imprison Vietnamese and by the Vietnamese to imprison Americans most famously senator McCain who was shot down and held here and the photos are proudly displayed to show it. Some obvious propaganda is also on display as in how well they treated the prisoners and the language used such as 'freedom fighters’ and’ imperialist invaders’ but it is very interesting albeit not that time consuming.

During day I had also spent a lot of time looking into booking trip to Halong bay as there was so much conflicting information and a range of offers and I wasn’t sure what to do yet. I ended up speaking to one agent I liked and had a good feel about and did some research based on what he said, including looking up my hotel on tripadvisor as he said they had a mixed reputation. After several hours debating the pros and cons and realizing my hotel had a lot of bad reviews from guests and tours, especially those who decided not to book tours through them and the staff turning nasty, I kept my plans quiet till I had decided what to do and in the end opted for a more expensive tour than some of those quoted and it included Christmas eve on the junk boat, with Christmas and boxing day staying on Sandy beach island.

I walked back to hotel and caught up on some sleep and in the evening met up with the Germans and Austrians for the night market which was busy and generally crazy place but all we wanted was some good cheap foods but lines of stalls selling clothes etc. is all that greeted us. After finding some food and walking to find some night life, we were looking for the cheap fabled street beers costing 50c, we managed to locate a table on the street  and joined others and drank beers until about 11:30pm when the police dutily came around and started shutting things down. The presence of the government is much more obvious up north and the people seemed a bit less friendly and traditional.

The next day was very cold, my coldest since leaving on the trip, and I had decided to walk to find the war museum and Ho Chi Minhs mausoleum. I stopped for breakfast and made sure I had enough time to join the long queues as the last tourists are allowed in around 10AM from memory. It’s a strange place and like someone said to me, it feels like you are in a Bond film and the old school communist ways are very present with armed guards at every corner, stern faces, no photography and you are kept in line as you are escorted in single file into the massive chamber and walk in a U shape around the preserved body of the Ho Chi Minh or famously "uncle".

I was more than happy to get out of there with all off the massive parade grounds, flying flags and military presence adding to the very strange surreal feeling of the place. On way back I bumped into the Germans and we spent some time exploring the war museum filled with tanks, planes helicopters and hundreds of school kids on day trips who spend as much time taking photos of us as the relics in the museum. Also three old veterans are dressed in uniform and were filmed as they sung dubbed Vietnam war songs for some kind of documentary or film. A massive plane wreck of a US plane shot down during the war is the centerpiece of the museum and a lot of the Vietnam equipment on display listed their heroic victories of an enemy conquered (read= more propaganda and sure some national pride).

On way back to the hotels we find an amazing French bakery and we buy cakes and enjoy lunch and then stop by the bottle shops as I wanted to take something with for my Halong bay trip the following day.  In the evening time we all meet up for a last dinner at a very enjoyable but insanely busy restaurant where customer service was not their thing as they move people along who took too long to order! The food was great though and I left and said my goodbyes to make my way to the famous water puppet show. It’s a 45 minute show and narrated on a big screen which is a tad small for the size of the theatre but the show although a little repetitive is incredible with the music and storytelling but more so the puppeteering. What’s annoying is the tourists with their cameras, which I don’t think should be allowed and many tourists leave through the show, maybe they didn’t know what to expect but I thought it was all a bit rude.

I made my way back to the hotel, and got ready for my trip to Halong Bay, which I had to explain to my hotel which resulted in some angry stares and followed by rude service until I left the following morning. The stories did seem true but I didn’t care as I was looking forward to visiting one of the most famous sights of Vietnam and I would get to enjoy my Christmas there!
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