Hue

Upon deciding to head up to Hue after Hoi An, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike as everyone whose done it reports absolutely stunning scenery. This was an on going debate throughout my stay in Hoi An and it was only on the last day I decided I wasn’t confident enough to ride a motorbike or scooter the necessary 160 odd kilometres. In the end I caught a local bus to Da Nang and then got the train the rest of the way. This meant I got to see a little of the beautiful scenery but missed out on the best bits. On the other hand, I arrived at my hostel in one piece and without an Asian tattoo of gravel rash.

Gates to the Hue Imperial City.

Cycling around Hoi An had given me the bicycle bug so the day after my arrival I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the sites around Hue. Within the city there is less to see but surrounding it are tombs and temples. I started off by powering along to the UNESCO Imperial City. Building started in 1804 but less than a century and a half later in 1947, Viet Cong and French fighting destroyed many of the buildings and burned the Imperial Palace to the ground. Then the Citadel was badly damaged in 1968 during the Tet Offensive and the South Vietnamese and American efforts to reclaim Hue. By the end of all this only ten of some 160 major buildings or sites remained. Fortunately, these have been or are in the process of being restored and preserved.

Inside the Imperial City

All this makes for a curious experience walking around the Citadel as some parts remain grassy ruins and others are perfectly solid (if a little weathered) buildings. While some of the weathering had clearly appeared naturally over time, there were a couple of places where it appeared intentional such as where doors had multiple layers of paint in different colours showing.

Inside the Imperial City

I eventually found myself at the exit and decided to move on to my next loaction: the Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was magnificent but also interesting was some of its history as this was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously self immolated in 1963 to protest the prosecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic government. The car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display at the pagoda and provided yet another insight into the build up to the Vietnam war.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Out of all the tombs, I decided to visit only one as the 100,000đ entrance fees to each would have quickly added up and the distant locations meant I wasn’t confident of fitting everywhere into one day. Hence, I went to the one that seemed to have the best reviews, the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While I cannot compare it to the other tombs I felt it deserved the reviews and enjoyed looking around the complex.

A building in Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

I spent the evening recovering from all my cycling over a cold beer with an Australian from my hostel and woke up bright and early the next day to finish packing.

Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb complex. 

Packing complete, I set left my backpack at the hostel and set out riding pillion on the back of a lass’s scooter to the abandoned water park. The Australian from the night before was with us and my excellent navigation skills saw us arriving in no time. We ended up paying the bribe fee to the entrepreneurial local security guard to enter the park as the large group of girls we were standing with all caved and our sheep-like natures won out.

Sitting inside the mouth of the dragon at the abandoned water park.

The water park didn’t have tons to see but the huge dragon in the centre of the lake was really cool to climb up and look out from. A few small additions to the graffiti later and we came across some flumes and slides that had seen better days. Finishing our loop around the lake, we headed back into Hue for a rushed lunch before I caught my bus up to Phong Nha.

Flumes at the abandoned water park.

The Ancient City of Hoi An

When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was not in the most upbeat of moods so the crowding of tourists and price hikes to match in the old city grated somewhat against my nerves. I bought my ticket to the old city for 120,000đ and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around. The ticket allows one to enter any five of the twenty two sites or points of interest around the city but tourists are technically expected to carry the ticket with them at all times in the old city. This wasn’t something I saw enforced but apparently it does occasionally happen.

The Japanese Bridge requires a ticket to cross (sometimes) but this classic shotfrom the next bridge over doesn’t.

Having bought the ticket I realised I didn’t know which of the sights to use mine for so just soaked up the atmospheric streets and visited the central market. Entering the building that sold fabric and housed the cheapest of Hoi An’s famous tailoring services, I found myself walking through it with increasing speed because so much as glancing at a stall meant persistent calls to buy something, and in one case almost being herded into one. The outdoor section of the market, selling mostly produce and fish, was more enjoyable as being able to see the sky made the whole experience less claustrophobic.

By the river in the old city. Lots of buildings are painted this cheerful shade of yellow throughout the city

After an early jaunt through the night market and dinner I watched the sunset from one on the bridges over the Thu Bon river. This proved to be a refreshing end to a stressful day of flat tires crowded tourist spots. As the light dimmed, new lights appeared on the river as the boats rigged silk lanterns and people released floating lanterns for good luck.

Boats and lanterns on the Thu Bon River

The next day I planned my stops in the city before setting out. My first stop was the Museum of Trading Ceramics. While the information provided was limited, the museum was situated in a beautiful old merchant house and it was amazing to read about just how long Hoi An had been a trading port before its decline. After looking around the second floor, I walked to Phuc Kien Assembly Hall where merchants used to meet it also seemed to be part shrine and I loved the huge spirals of incense that hung burning from the ceiling.

In the courtyard on the Museum of Trading Ceramics.

My final stop of the day was the Minh Huong Pagoda which was very quiet. I had hoped to also visit the Tan Ky house but by the time I got there after devouring some fresh spring rolls (a new favourite of mine) in the central market, they had closed for lunch. Being too impatient to wait, I wandered the shops of the city, debating whether to replace my rucksack (currently rather holey) with a nice leather one. I was strongly dissuaded when the shop keeper dropped from 2,730,000đ to 1,100,000đ in the space of a minute. While this could probably could have been a good deal, only £33 for a leather bag, having had my arm grabbed when I went to leave after turning down the bag because it didn’t have a zip closure had rather soured my mood and I returned to the hostel.

Incense spirals and the shrine in the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall.

For dinner I had a life changing experience of bành mí from Bành Mí Phuong, a small stall made world renowned by Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it the best bành mí he had ever eaten.

Fresh spring rolls and a few other foods but most importantly, fresh spring rolls.

The next day I left all valuables at the hostel and set out for the beach on a bicylce from the hostel. After the first busy stretch, the cycle was quite a bit of fun and the rice paddies were a pleasant change of scenery. The beach was crowded, even when I cycled further down it to avoid paying bicycle parking costs (an excellent piece of advice from my hostel). After a swim where my inner selkie rejoiced at being in the sea again, I lounged on a sun chair in the shade (still managing to get burnt despite reapply my sun cream) and read my book.

Silk lanterns were on sale all over Hoi An.

In hindsight I should have known my cycle to the beach was too easy as I cycled all the way back to the hostel with a headwind buffering me about. To round off my stay I visited the Tan Ky house that aftenoon. I got a nice little talk about the combination of Japanese and Chinese architecture used. My favourite bit was a series of stickers marking the heights of various floods over the years. The highest was in 1964 and almost brushed the ceiling. This reminded me of a story I heard about a pub that used to remain open during floods so locals could kayak over for a pint.

Thu Bon River.

An Interlude to Discuss the Most Important Rule of Travel… and What Happens When You Break it.

If there is one rule to travelling that must always be obeyed it is never ever whatever you do, think a journey is going well until you have arrived at your destination on time and in one piece. If you do decide to break this sacred rule, know that when you wake up at 0520 in the morning expecting your bus to have just arrived in Hoi An, you will in fact be forty five minutes outside of Hoi An with a flat tire. Naturally there will be no spare tire, the majority of the hold will be filled with packages mysteriously wrapped in black plastic – probably drugs you will joke. After a smoke and just as you exit the bus that is starting to turn into a sweatbox without the air conditioner running, one of the drivers will jump on the back of a motorbike and depart for destinations unknown.

It will only be as this point, when you observe the lean of the bus, that you will realise there is a flat tire and that it will be a while yet before you make it to Hoi An. Not to worry you will think, as the grandmother-mother-child combo that were next to you all the way from Saigon flag down a local bus and speed away, with only forty five minutes to Hoi An and allowing half an hour to fix the tire, you will be on your way again in a couple of hours (in reality you are only jinxing the situation further).

A couple of hours is still a long time though, so you will open up the hold to see if your bag is easily collectable, if it is you plan to follow the locals who are performing a gradual exodus with each local bus that passes. As you are closing the last door (you can’t even see your bag), the remaining driver will lean out the door and shout at you in Vietnamese. You presume he is telling you to stop but the language sounds so angry it is just as likely he is trying to discuss the weather (unlikely since he is such a miserable looking fellow).

Plans of escape thwarted, you will order an ice coffee at the nearby cafe, even though it isn’t yet six and the owner is still opening up. This is where you will remain for the foreseeable future, eventually joined by others as the heat of the bus becomes intolerable. Two hours will pass and the driver won’t have even returned (so much for that plan). At some point you will start playing a convoluted version of rummy where, since none of you know the actual rules, you just make them up as you go along.

At 0830 the driver will arrive bringing two tires and an air tank to power the jack and screwdriver as well as blow up the tires. Cheers all round. At 0850 the flat, rear tire and the front tire will have been removed and everyone who was fixing the bus will have disappeared. Fortunately a minibus driver who speaks English will arrive around this time and he will explain to you that the tires they bought back (probably from Da Nang you will now realise) are the wrong size so the driver has had to go twenty five kilometres down the road in the opposite direction to buy some new ones (why couldn’t he do that to start with if it is so much closer).

Some more cards and short walk up the road to see if there is anywhere selling something that can be approximated as breakfast (there isn’t unless you count crisps) later and the driver will return with two shiny new tires. It will be 0940 when you eventually leave and 1030 when you arrive in Hoi An.

There was no need to phone the hostel the day before and ask if you could check in early after all.

Saigon

The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.

Two stores in Ben Thanh market, both selling suits for the best price.

My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.

A poster about the charity MAG. I still remember their visit from when I was in primary school.

The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.

This tank was outside of the Independence Palace. The chain didn’t seem to be doing a very good job, especially when people started climbing on it.

My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.

Roof of the Independence Palace.

The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.

Bolt hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It looks small but is surpridingly easy to fit into. 

Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.

An array of traps utilised by the south Vietnamese rebels.

I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.

A section of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.

A little motorbike chaos. Apparently around 95% of vehicles in Vietnam are of the two wheel variety.

From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.

A diorama at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.

Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay

From the moment I decided I was going to Hanoi, I knew that I had to cram in a day trip to Ha Long Bay with its rocky karsts that rise imperiously from the water.  Rather than booking onto a tour in advance, I decided to wait until I arrived in Hanoi.  Hence, after my walking tour I found myself sitting in the common area of the hostel, surrounded by cigarette smoke and scrolling though internet page after internet page about the best way to visit Ha Long Bay.

Recurring themes began to appear:  you have to go, lots of tourist boats, and be careful of super budget tours as safety isn’t always a priority.  The first point I already knew, the second I was a tad worried about but knew it was the off-season, and, as a sea-faring soul, the third concerned me deeply.  Eventually I stumbled across a blog post by Budget Travel Talk that sung of the advantages of visiting Lan Ha Bay instead. It is the same karst rock formation but falls under the jurisdiction of a different province and is not nearly as crammed with tourist boats. At that moment, in the way that coincidences often happen (may the spirits of chance forever look favourably upon me), I looked up just as the hostel’s propaganda information screen showed off their cocktail cruise to, you guessed it, Lan Ha Bay.

Well who am I to ignore signs.  The hostel trip was cheaper than most two day one night tours to Ha Long Bay because it stayed on the tour provider’s island, Cát Ȏng, rather than sleeping on board and it was focused in Lan Ha Bay so didn’t have the same tourist saturation to drive up prices.  Futhermore, even with low price there would still be the opportunity to hike on Cát Bà island, swim in the sea and kayak among the karsts so I saw no reason not to sign on to the next day’s tour.

The tour bus picked everyone up from their hostels the next day, thankfully at a late enough hour that I had a chance to make the most of the hostel’s free breakfast.  On a side note, I am never going to get used to English watermelon and pineapple after the deliciously ripe versions of the fruits I eat on a regular basis here in Singapore.  The bus journey provided a nice opportunity to catch up on sleep and see a little of the Vietnamese countryside (rice paddies and roadworks).  Suddenly, over the flat horizon the tall rocky hills of Ha Long City rise up.  However, it was not to them that we headed.  Instead we drove to Cát Hẚi Island, part of Hai Phong City.  From where we set out on our six hour cruise among the thousands of islands of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

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The lovely smog and dust cloud over mainland Vietnam.  Fortunately it disappeared as we got in among the rocky karsts.

We were extremely fortunate that the rain of the previous day had cleared up and we were left with beautiful blue skies as we ventured through the karsts.  Something everyone on the cruise really appreciated was the lack of other boats.   I think this was mainly because we were in the less visited Lan Ha Bay for most of the cruise but I expect visiting in the off season also helped.

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A typical Vietnamese lunch was provided on the middle deck about an hour into the cruise.  Our guide seemed confused when we asked for more of the tasty chili sauce, checking several times we wanted more of the chili sauce before getting it.

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We moored at this floating pontoon to go kayaking.  I don’t trust myself with anything electronic in close proximity to water so don’t have any photos of this part of the cruise but can assure you, my dear reader, that it was a huge amount of fun.  We went through a couple of cave tunnels where stalactites reached down to the water and bats screeched up in the shadows before stopping in a little lagoon to try and see the white headed langur monkeys.  Unfortunately, even our guide’s hand whistling couldn’t tempt them to appear.  However, the break did give my arms a chance to recover slightly so I can’t complain.

The only downside to the kayaking was that we were close enough to the karsts to see just how much rubbish had washed ashore.  Over the duration of the cruise, I found the amount of rubbish we saw floating around, most noticeably in the Ha Long Bay section, really saddening.  I knew that this would be the case before we set out however it was still a shock to see.

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We had a huge amount of fun leaping from the roof of the boat into the blue depths below by this little island.  No one swam to the beach but it was lovely to be swimming in the sea again and cheering for everyone to jump in.

As previously mentioned, we spent the night on Cát Ȏng island.  We all stayed together in one of the dorms rather than in the little cottages.  All the food was included in the trip, and there was certainly a lot of it, particularly at the evening meal.  The “starter” buffet table alone had enough for everyone to eat their fill.

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Nothing beats a full stomach and midnight campfire after a blissful day at sea.

The next day, we paid an extra $10 to take a little boat over to Cát Bà island and climb hike through Cát Bà National Park to Ngu Lam Peak.  The hike wasn’t too strenuous in  and of itself, it was just the heat at the jungle floor that had us wishing for the end.  However, the view we had once we reached the top was definitely worth it and was made all the sweeter by the effort we had put in.  Oh woe is me *dramatically faints at the thought of exerting oneself*

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Having scaled the mountain *strikes dramatic pose of victory* and while waiting for our bus, I took the opportunity to try drinking straight from a coconut, a beverage that every man and his dog had been trying to sell to me since I arrived in Cambodia at the beginning of the week.  While it was nice enough, I think I will continue with water unless someone starts spiking the coconuts with rum.   Eventually our bus returned and we were driven to our final lunch before getting the ferry and bus back to Hanoi.

All in all, a very fun cocktail cruise and tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay where ironically everyone’s least favourite part was the cocktails.

Hanoi

Arriving at Hanoi Rocks Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am immediately taken by the music themed interior and sold when I meet the hostel’s resident cats.  With little planned for the next day, I signed on to the free walking around Hanoi’s Old Quarter tour the hostel offered.

We started off by walking to Hoan Kiem Lake.  This roughly translates as lake of the returned sword and is said to be where the Emperor Lê Lơi returned the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, to the Golden Turtle God, Kim Qui.  I have to say with this story and the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend I begin to detect an interesting premise for conspiracy.

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We had a look and the Hanoi Opera House but then the skies opened so we went and ate ice cream and looked around a fancy mall until it stopped raining.

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Our next stop was St Joseph Cathedral.  Despite the infusion of French influence throughout the Old Quarter, the cathedral still seemed very severe and out of place next to cheerfully painted façades and balconies overflowing with plants.

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There is something so refreshing about cities filled with the vibrant green of nature.

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With the tour over, we sat down on the pavement to enjoy lunch.  This proved to be an interesting mix of chopsticks and fingers.  I would love to see an English food inspector’s face at these delightful open fronted cafes and restaurants.

The Trials and Tribulations of Planning

Two or three weeks ago I stuck my head out of my textbooks long enough to realise that recess week was fast approaching and I had yet to form a plan of which country I was going to intrepidly explore.  After a few minutes of trying to wrap my head around the fact that my recess week is before most of my cohorts return to studying and that in their first week back I would be taking two of my midterms, I actually started planning.  Like anyone nowadays, my first (and only) port of call was the internet.  The internet is an amazing resource for anyone who so much as dreams of travelling as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.  It is also the bane of all holiday planners as it offers a near infinite number of locations each with a wealth of reviews and suitably idyllic photos.

You see, it’s all very well and good saying “I’ll go to such and such a place” but then you bring up BBC news and decide that perhaps that particular location can wait a while or you pick a country but are then bombarded with choices as to where in that country you should go.  In the end, I narrowed my list of seven countries down to two by touring TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Pinterest.  My methods of elimination also included a quick check of Gov.uk for any travel warnings; Travel Health Pro for vaccination advice; and a slew of websites to try and interpret what visas were need for where.

All in all, there was a moment where I was tempted to can the entire venture and just relax on a beach in some tourist trap for a week.  However, I persevered and chose a location in each of country to spend the week.  I’m not sure they are any less tourist trappy but I like to pretend they are.  After the hard part of making a decision.  I only had to work out how to get there; what I needed for visas; where I was going to stay; and what I was actually going to do.  Fortunately for the modern traveller this is made easy with the help of websites like Skyscanner, HostelWorld and the multitude of travel bloggers who have gone before.

So without further ado, the winners of this semester’s recess week holiday awards are…

…Siem Reap in Cambodia:

Siem Reap

I am particularly looking forward to the temples of Angkor Wat, though the Night Market and Landmine Museum have also caught my eye.

And…

…Hanoi in Vietnam:

Hanoi

As well as seeing the thriving Old Quarter here, I am hoping to cram in a day trip to the famous Halong Bay.

With only seven kilos of luggage, my laptop will be staying here in Singapore so posting may be varied but at the very least I hope to put a few photo heavy posts up.  Fingers crossed and happy travelling.