A trip back to Vietnam's Imperial past
21.04.2014 - 30.04.2014 38 °C
We love Ho Chi Minh City. We love the chaos, the vibrant atmosphere, the friendly local people, the constant change (for good or otherwise), and for the fact that hu tieu chay noodles only cost 80p. That’s a full-blown, each as much as you can, leave you absolutely stuffed lunch for 80p.
However, it’s a city from which you do sometimes need a break. So it was for our latest adventure that we found ourselves on a 22 hour train ride, heading north, to the old Imperial capital of Hue. Vietnamese trains are not the fastest trains in the world; they’re not really the cleanest either, but they are hugely entertaining. I’m not sure I could sustain 22 hours in the basic hard seat compartment, but our sleeper carriage was very comfortable and we shared it with two lovely old Vietnamese sisters for most of the journey. It’s the sort of train where you can still stick your head out of the window, get off at stations for a stroll, and you also get a spectacular view of the Hai Van Pass and Lang Co beach. The train line hugs the coast as it slowly meanders its way over the Pass and the shoreline looks stunning.
We arrived in Hue and promptly found ourselves 300 metres from the station in La Residence, a 5-star art deco hotel, formerly the home of the French governor. It is a beautiful hotel that looks serenely out over the Perfume River and the Citadel. The Citadel is the centre of the old Imperial city and, though it was heavily bombed during the war, it is still very atmospheric and an amazing place to stroll about. It is easy to imagine how decadent and impressive the area would have been in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Royal Tombs, slightly out of town, continue this theme. Tu Duc’s tomb is simple but set in stunning grounds; Khai Dinh’s is more sumptuous and colourful with a host of European influences; and Minh Mang’s is set by the river amongst quiet lakes and gardens. A boat ride up the Perfume River takes you to Thieu Mu Pagoda, an iconic symbol of Hue. All in all, Hue is a world away from Saigon and a very beautiful town.
After 3 days in Hue we went a bit backpackery (which was a bit of a shock to us … we’re a bit old for such things) and hopped on a minibus destined for the Phong Nha National Park, via the De-militarised Zone, Vinh Moc Tunnels and the Ben Hai River. This area was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam and was heavily bombed during the war. The 17th Parallel ran down the Ben Hai River, and crossing the bridge and visiting the Ben Hai Museum that explains about the area was strangely eerie and poignant. Similarly, the Vinh Moc Tunnels, built by the local population to hide in and avoid the bombs, were a very sobering experience. We were joined in our minibus by quite a few very young travellers as well as a lovely older couple from Alaska / Arizona called Jim and Lynne, and a great Vietnam vet called Suel. Suel, in particular, provided us with a really interesting commentary of the whole area (in a very unbiased way) and now works for Veterans for Peace, a charity that actively educates school children about America’s disastrous role in the war, as well as supporting local people in Vietnam about the dangers of unexploded bombs.
We ended up in the middle of nowhere in Phong Nha at a backpacker’s farm stay where pounding music blasted out very loudly and beers were freely flowing and there were lots of people in vests advertising Vietnamese beer and we realised we were all just a little bit long in the tooth for such things. Luckily the music calmed down quite quickly, we had a basic room overlooking acres of beautiful rice paddies and everything seemed to (sort of) mellow out.
Phong Nha is a UNESCO designated World Heritage site (as is Hue) and famous for some pretty impressive caves. We began by visiting Paradise Cave, which has a huge cavern and millions of stunning stalactites and stalagmites. The size is simply breathtaking. We then donned hard hats and head torches and went swimming underground in Dark Cave. This was brilliant. It was great just floating around in the dark, swimming in the cool water and wallowing in the mud. The next day we hired bikes with Jim and Lynne, found a guide and spent the day cycling along the original Ho Chi Minh Trail and through the local villages. Our guide was really good and he took us off the tourist trail for much of the day, crossing rivers by sampans and rickety old bridges, meeting the local people, and we even got to see our very first wild monkey! Top tick! Jill managed to crash three times and has a rather impressive scar on her leg. We finished off with a swim in the river and it was just a lovely day. On the last day Jill cycled down to see Phong Nha cave, a flooded cave that boats take you into, and I headed out for a jungle(ish) trek to the Tu Lan caves. These caves are set in the most stunning limestone plateaus in the middle of nowhere. The trekking was wonderful, the caves were again stunning, and the swimming equally so. All in all, it was a fantastic few days in tranquil and really picturesque countryside and a world away from Saigon.
We ended up in the sleepy town of Dong Hoi on Independence Day. Not a lot happens here. The locals are very friendly, there are just about zero tourists and we spent the day strolling along the river front, watching the fishing boats, taking in the annual dragon boat race, having a massage for £2.00 administered by blind masseurs who actually walk up and down your back, and generally just watching the world go by.
This has turned out to be our best bit of travelling in Vietnam. It was a bit off the beaten track which was great and the whole area is nothing short of stunning. We met some really nice travellers and the local people were so welcoming and we just had a beautiful time. This is what makes living here so good!
Back in Saigon there appears to be a few riots kicking off. It's quite hard to figure out what's actually going on but it is quite a way from us and it appears to mainly involve issues with the Chinese community and Chinese owned factories, mainly because China has moved an oil rig into disputed waters in the East Sea. We 're both fine and it shouldn't really affect us but we'll be in touch if things escalate. We'll let you know ...