We had crossed the border from Laos and we had travelled by bus to Hue which is a large city near to the coast in the middle of Vietnam. In order to avoid the cold weather we had crossed just where the climate changes and where the country is divided by a range of mountains. We planned to head south from Hue to Danang.
At first, after a month of peace and tranquillity with the down to earth people of Laos it took us quite a while to warm to Vietnam.
Gosia and I arrived in Hue quite late at night and we were quite overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos that surrounded us as we stepped off the bus. It was like South America all over again as touts and porters tried to grab our bags and insisted that we use their taxis.
After the gentleness of Laos the noise was confusing and disorientating.
Neon lights flickered, horns blasted and the fumes from the motorbikes burnt our eyes and throats.
We had a night booked in a hostel and arriving there a party was in full swing. What on earth had we let ourselves in for?
The Perfume River runs through the city of Hue. Some lovely walks through parkland run alongside much of the river. Modern office blocks and hotels rub shoulders with some lovely old houses. Workers in business suits walk past shoe-shine men and traders who squat on the pavements. And there are motor bikes everywhere.
We spent a couple of days in Hue acclimatising to a new language and new customs and window shopping. It seems that everybody in Vietnam is a tailor or a seamstress and whole streets are dedicated to the craft of dressing you beautifully, quickly and cheaply.
The Imperial City and the Citadel
Probably the most impressive attraction in Hue is the Imperial City. This massive complex is sited inside the Citadel – the whole of which is surrounded by walls and a moat. Inside are many areas, including the Purple Forbidden City.
Building began in 1804 and now the area has a UNESCO status to protect it. While there is an effort to rebuild and renovate the damaged buildings it is sad to know that they were destroyed relatively recently during the Vietnamese/American war when house to house fighting took place in Hue.
I spent a good few hours wandering around the overgrown grounds with my Turkish friend Eray who I had met at the hostel. There are intricate carvings on the doors and roofs and beautiful colours are painted on window shutters and enamel work. Incense burns in large cauldrons and fish swim in ponds, yet in other places piles of rubble lie as testimony to the war.
The train from Hue to Danang
Despite the ancient city we couldn’t really settle so we decided to head south from Hue to Danang. The guidebooks told us that both the road and the railway journeys from Hue to Danang are quite spectacular and we opted for the train. The books are right – it is a really beautiful train journey.
The tracks soar high up into the mountains and then swoop down towards the coast, passing through jungle and towns and villages. At every single road crossing were men who were controlling the traffic and waving flags and there were even a couple of people stealing a ride on the top of the train carriages.
We got off the train in Danang and although we had planned to stay here for a couple of nights we soon decided against it once we had finished our coffee in a little cafe. We asked the proprietor to negotiate a cab for us to the small beach town of My Khe which was nicknamed China Beach by the US soldiers who swamped it for R&R during the war.
The beach is basically a suburb of Danang and is not far down the coast and our guide book told us about a not-to-be-missed hostel there. However, when we arrived in to the little town we were told by a vendor that this hostel had been closed down. Suspicious of a scam to divert us to her brother’s hostel our cabbie phoned our planned destination, spoke to the owner and soon deposited us outside a small bar (no hostel) and proceeded to demand triple the agreed fare from us.
So far Vietnam was failing to impress us!
Hoa is a small man with a huge heart and he welcomed us into his bar, promising us that he would help us to get some cheap accommodation for the night and he assured us that the price quoted by the cab driver was correct and the staff in the coffee shop had been wrong.
Hoa was chatting with a couple of US veterans who had returned to live in the area and had made it their home and over a beer he told us how he had been forced to close his hostel by the authorities who wanted the land for development and he was now running the bar in this new area by the beach.
After a cold beer and time spent with the irrepressible Hoa we began to feel a bit more positive and we arranged to return the following morning for breakfast and then again the following evening for a traditional family dinner which was to be cooked by Hoa’s wife and sister.
The town at the foot of the Marble Mountain is VERY strange. The main occupation of just about everybody is sculpturing blocks of marble into statues.
Some of these statues are massive and destined for temples or large hotels; others are small and targeted at tourists from the line of shops which run along the main street. Running the gauntlet of the touts who were determinedly trying to get us into their shops we set off to climb the Marble Mountain.
Hundreds of stone steps and pathways crisscross up the steep mountain side (there is an elevator some of the way up for the less able). Temples, statues and pagodas are tucked into every little nook and cranny.
Cave complexes spread into the mountain rocks like swiss cheese where you can find hidden grottos and both Hindhu and Buddhist temples. In the pitch black depths of one you climb up a tight squeeze of a funnel and you emerge on the top of the mountain where you have some spectacular views.
As we looked all around we learnt (by eavesdropping on a tour guide) that there used to be five of these large mountains sticking up from the flat plain but they have been decimated by man’s desire for the marble. The government has thankfully called a halt to any more quarrying but the town still chips away at huge blocks of marble which are transported in from other sites which are presumably being destroyed in the same way.
I also learnt from the same guide that during the war the Vietcong had a hospital on the mountain – in full view of the American air field and the beaches where their enemy troops lazed around and recuperated!
My Khe or China Beach
China Beach is a long side stretch of white sand and I guess in season is thronged with tourists but for now, Gosia and I had it to ourselves, apart from some fishermen who were paddling their small boats around.
I was particularity fascinated by these boats as they are just like the coracles that were on the rivers of Wales in the past. Their roundness and similarity to corks bouncing along on the waves frightened every water hating molecule in my body although the skill of the fishermen had me in awe.
The Dragon Bridge, Danang
After a couple of nights at the beach we decided to give Danang another chance and we set off on a local bus for the weekend. After the hospitality of Hoa and his family we were disappointed to have a total dragon of a bus conductor on the local bus – she insisted on charging us double for the journey – we had to pay a fare for our backpacks even though the bus wasn’t full – and then she made us get off the bus a good forty five minutes’ walk from out destination in the drizzle (it seemed that she understood our not so polite comments about her attitude in English!)
Luckily our hostel was nice and clean and breakfast was included but we were still both totally overwhelmed by the traffic in the streets.
Vietnam has a great culture of what I can honestly say is the best coffee in the world (in my opinion) and countless little cafes and coffee shops are on every street corner. Bizarrely you usually sit on tiny little plastic stools all lined up facing the road – but actually this is perfect for traffic watching which is far more exciting than any television programme.
As we set off for the Dragon Bridge that night our receptionist warned us not to stand close to the head of the dragon. Why on earth not? We had made this special trip back to Danang and we wanted a good view from the road not from the banks of the river where the majority of the people were standing.
The police closed off the road bridge and pushed us all back towards the end. This bridge has a large metal dragon snaking its way across the centre which at weekends breaths fire. The head clicked and whirred and then flames began belching from the dragon’s mouth.
In the darkness and the light drizzle it was hot but not unbearable. Our receptionist obviously was erring on the side of caution and Gosia and I were looking forward to finding a club and going out dancing after the fire demonstration. We took pictures and awed and ahhed with the crowd – and then the flames turned to smoke.
The dragon was puffing out steam high into the night sky. Then to our horror, the steam condensed when it hit the cold air…….. and it fell to the ground in a torrent! It was as if a million buckets of water had been tipped over us all at once and we were soaked through to the skin!
There was no escape as wave after wave fell heavily onto us and then we simply had to see the funny side and laugh. There was no dancing for us that night as we made our way back to the hostel and dry out our money, our phones and our underwear.
We had seen a wide variety of things from Hue to Danang but now we decided to get a bus further south to Hoi An. Maybe we would like that town better.