Hue, Town of Emperors
Hue, the old capital city of imperial southern Vietnam, was reached in the early evening after a one hour flight from Hanoi. The first stop was dinner, had at the Royal Park, where extra attention had been paid to the decorations of the serving plates: peacocks, roosters, flowers and even the whole rice serving bowl were carved out of carrots, pumpkins and the like. Then onwards to the Muong Thanh hotel and a room with a view over the Perfume River and unfortunately also an outdoor restaurant that blasted techno beats until mignight so loud that they could be heard on the eighth floor of the hotel with all the windows closed.
A short walk around the block confirmed that this was a much more tourist-oriented place than Saigon or Hanoi: bars and restaurants went out of their way to be as inviting as possible to travellers of all ages. One beer at DMZ Bar and a quick trip to a minimart, then it was time to call it a night, although getting to sleep was not so easy with the party going on by the river.
The following morning was spent roaming the tomb of emperor Tu Duc, more like a park than an actual burial site, and the Imperial City of Hue, constructed in the early 19th century in the same fashion as the Forbidden City in Beijing and used as the home of the emperor until the mid 20th century. Both places were left to decay back when communism took over, but a couple decades later it was fortunately noted that these sites might be good for tourism and restoration was begun. There’s still a lot left to be done especially at the Imperial City, which was damaged by bombing during the war, but the work done already gives a good idea of how extravagant the whole place has been. The Imperial City has been named a World Heritage Site by Unesco, making restoration all the more important.
To counter the peace and calm of the morning, a short visit was made to the local market. Not quite as hectic as the Chinese wholesale market in Saigon, but still too cramped and busy for people used to shopping in European supermarkets. Then on to an eight course lunch once again, a really delicious one served at Hoa Vien, before boarding the bus and heading southwards on route 1A to Hoi An through misty rice paddies and tunnels, the longest of which spanned 6280 m.
Hoi An, Town of Tailors, Shoemakers, and Lanterns
The bus arrived at the Hoi An Trails resort hotel early in the evening, so the first task was to find a place for dinner. Red Dragon, about a ten minute walk from the hotel, turned out to be a really good choice. Tasty starters of calamari rings and fresh Vietnamese ricepaper spring rolls filled with duck breast were followed by the best tuna ever, thin cut and lightly seared, served with a delicious sauce with mango, passion fruit and fresh herbs. On the walk back to the hotel, a stop was made at a tailor’s and the first order of the trip made: an evening gown for Hattivatti’s female travel companion. The evening was finished off with a little dip in the hotel pool, the first swim of the whole vacation.
The next morning began with a walking tour of Hoi An Ancient Town, another Unesco World Heritage Site. The Japanese bridge, an old Chinese home, a silk producer, a Chinese communal house, and the local market were visited before boarding a boat and heading along the Thu Bon river to the village of Thanh Ha, where the traditional craft of making clay pottery by hand is still keeping everyone employed. Hattivatti was fascinated by the skillful and fast work of Nguyen Thi Duoc, a 93-year-old grandmother who still works daily. A really interesting place to visit.
Then back to the hotel and lunch at the Red Dragon (more tuna needed) before heading to the tailor’s to pick up the dress, made in less than 18 hours from scratch. The result was impressive, so another order was placed, this time for a winter jacket. Next it was time to pick up the laundry before heading back to the ancient town, where copies of some favorite sandals were ordered at a shoemaker. There appears to be nothing that can’t be made to order in this town!
The plan had been to enjoy the descending darkness by watching the local full moon celebration of floating candles in the river, but unfortunately the weather did not fit the plan: strong gusts of wind and continuous rain turned the streets into a maze of puddles and made burning candles and even lanterns pretty much impossible. Nothing else to do but enjoy the local cuisine, beginning with drinks at The Rice Drum, continuing to The Chef for some local dishes, such as crispy pancakes and a noodle soup called cao lau, and finishing off with coffee, tea and lemon pie at Hanoi Roastery. Then a short taxi ride, costing a mere 50 000 dong (a bit over 2€), to the hotel to listen to the rain and wind battering the resort.
Luckily the next day, the first of the tour with no planned activites, dawned less stormy. After breakfast, bikes were loaned from the hotel and a ride past rice fields and resort construction sites taken to the beach, where the wind was still going strong and forcing huge waves towards land. The waters weren’t inviting but cycling was surprisingly fun and easy, with only a fraction of the moped amounts seen in the bigger cities, so it was decided that a visit to town by bike would ensue.
Along the way, some sandals were bought, as the sizes and colors were direct hits (naturally these could also have been made to order even for the same evening). Then a cycling tour of the islands in the river neighboring the ancient town was followed by lunch at the local market at a stall run by Ms. Ha, serving up noodle soups such as cao lau and my quang. Lunch for two cost only 40 000 dong, totalling less than 2€. Then on to Reaching Out, a tea house run by the deaf, for some peace and quiet as well as jasmine tea and Vietnamese coffee.
On the way back to the hotel, the ordered sandals were picked up and noted to be impressively exact copies of the originals. Also the winter coat turned out even better than expected. After freshening up a bit at the hotel, a minibus transport took the travellers back to town once more (25 km of cycling had been enough for the day). First some drinks at The Chef, which had a large selection of Belgian beers, and then a stroll along the river to see the lanterns, which were now all lit up. A candle was set afloat on the river before heading to dinner at Morning Glory. Once again delicious food, including the local delicacies of white roses (kind of like ravioli made of rice paper and filled with a mix of pork and shrimp), crispy pancakes, and local noodle soups, the whole dinner for two costing only 350 000 dong.
Hoi An was a really enjoyable place, but the next morning it would be time to head south again. Maybe that was a good thing for the traveller’s wallets, as shopping here was made way too inviting.