Our flight from Hanoi reached Da Nang pretty late and it was another 45 minute drive before we could get to our hotel, the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and Spa. We had a garden facing view, it was spacious and luxurious, and we slept the sleep of the righteous. Breakfast the following morning was taken by the pool and it was full of really healthy ingredients – nevertheless it was lovely! We even had time for a stroll along the beach, as the hotel is pitched right up against the sea front. It felt just like being on holiday. Travel’s a tough life though, and it wasn’t long before all five of us were whisked away by our very ebullient guide Hanh (but we could call her Hannah) for a morning visit to My Son.
It’s so hard to look at those two words and not pronounce it as in “go on, my son”. But in fact it’s “mi sern” (or something like that), and a visit has nothing to do with popping in on your heir, but it’s actually the ruins of an imperial city during the Cham dynasty, active between the 4th and 12th centuries. It was only rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 1890s. In a slightly confusing twist of geography, the temples are dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and there’s a notable linga still in good condition. The “tourist” visit starts rather unpromisingly with a “cultural show” of musicians and dancers, that is skilful but goes on too long. Mind you, I was very impressed with the way the young ladies balanced their water pots on their heads.
The real appeal of the site is simply wandering around all the ruins, admiring the artistic carvings, the fascinating Sanskrit inscriptions, and imagining how grand it must have been in its heyday. Its redbrick construction brings to mind how Keble College Oxford might look in about a thousand years. It’s a very exposed site, so if you go, do make sure you’ve got your sun hat on! It’s popular with the local kids too, and while we were there, a big bunch of them were having fun in the sun and splashing around in the river that runs alongside. For all the world it looks like you have stumbled upon King Louis’ ruined fortress in Disney’s Jungle Book.
After a lengthy and enjoyable exploration, we took the minibus back to Hoi An, driving along Route 1 – or as Hanh described it: “The Number 1 road in Vietnam”. It’s the main coastal road that links Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Why is it called Road Number 1, we asked. “Because they haven’t built Number 2 yet” came her ironic reply. You get to see all sorts of extraordinary fellow travellers on the Number 1 road. For example, we saw a lady riding a motorbike whilst precariously balancing two big bags of laundry and 7 (yes seven) birdcages, each with a feathered friend inside. That’s ambition for you. On reaching Hoi An, it was time for lunch and yet another of these restaurants that provides a training programme for street children. This was The Market Restaurant, immaculately clean, and with all the food prepared very openly so you could inspect everything you were going to eat at invasively close quarters. We had Cao Lau, Banana Flower Salad with Duck, Tomato Soup with meat, Caramel Fish in a clay pot, Stuffed squid, Stir fried green beans, plus rice and a dessert. It was all good stuff, but by now we had gone off Vietnamese food (the Pho24 in Hanoi just ruined it for us), so I think we just enjoyed the beans and rice. However, the other members of our party rated it very highly.
After lunch it was time to investigate downtown Hoi An. If Luang Prabang was the most beautiful place we saw in Laos, Hoi An is definitely the most beautiful place we saw in Vietnam. Its setting is gorgeous, on the banks of the river, with charming little shops, old buildings, pretty temples, lots of cutesy colourful lanterns and a great holiday feel. It was like a Vietnamese Stratford upon Avon but without the Royal Shakespeare Company.
We had a lovely walk down by the Old Quarter. There are so many little things that take your interest here. The main stand out sight you notice is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built in 1593 to link the Japanese community to the Chinese community from either side of the river. There is a little temple halfway across, added at a later date. Unsurprisingly, it’s usually thronging with tourists. Staying on the “town centre” side, very close by is the Cantonese Assembly Hall, containing not only a meeting hall but also a beautiful temple and elegant gardens. A little further down the street you come to the House of Quan Thang, an 18th century “shophouse”, with walls of dark teak and concealing a charming little courtyard. Worryingly, the walls are littered with painted lines revealing how high the flood waters have risen in recent years.
Intersecting the street is another road called Le Loi whose shops offer the speciality service of Very Fast Tailoring. Mrs Chrisparkle and I quite fancied having something nice made, but with only four hours for them to make it we didn’t think we’d stand much chance. Not a problem. Sadly (for her) Mrs C couldn’t really find anything she wanted to have made to measure, but I did – a dashing red silk shirt with such vivid colour it would knock your eyes out at twenty paces. We went into Hoi An 41 Silk, and they promised us for sure my shirt would be made to measure and ready to collect that evening. True to their word, we went back later on and it was ready. No problem with the timing. Size-wise, however… it is a little on the large side. I could grow into it, but that probably wouldn’t be wise on health grounds. Nevertheless, it’s good to wear on hot days. And it’s a very striking red.
Doubling back on ourselves, we visited the House of Kan Ty, yet another of these dark old shophouses, and then crossed the modern An Hoi footbridge, brightly decorated with lanterns, mythical beasts, and the ubiquitous lovers’ padlocks. Then it was back to the hotel for a much needed kip, another walk along the beach and some cocktails by the pool. I confess, we had it tough. We tore ourselves away from this ordeal to come back into town to see it illuminated by night. It really is a stunning sight. There’s a tradition that you buy a tiny paper floating basket from one of the little boats moored up on the water’s edge, place a lighted candle inside then push it off into the water whilst saying a prayer, or remembering someone. Every night loads of people do it, so the water surface is strewn with literally hundreds of these little candlelit baskets and it’s utterly beautiful.
Apart from that, at night-time the town is alive and well and full of restaurants and bars. We went to Restaurant 69 – the meal was good, but the wine was a shocker – avoid the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc at all costs. The night we were there it was “Earth Day” – and the whole town had decided it would switch off its electric lights for one hour, from 8.30 -9.30pm. To be honest, we didn’t really believe it would happen. But at the stroke of 8.30pm all the lights went out in restaurants and bars, and candles went on. They were a really compliant little town. We were slightly irked by the timing – it coincided with us stumbling back from the shirt shop in the dark, with hardly any light to guide us. One has to thank one’s lucky stars for one’s iPhone Torch facility.
The next morning we had to say goodbye to Hoi An (very sad, because it really was a terrific little place) and we were on the road again in the direction of Hué. But first stop was the Cham Sculpture Museum at Da Nang. This is a most impressive place. The exhibits are in great condition, some of them are really big and imposing too; others smaller and intricate. Cham sculpture can be summed up in two words – Hinduism, and breasts. Most of the monuments are dedicated to the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh, and there are also many to the goddesses Bhagavati, Uma and Devi. But they were really into breasts, in a big way. The more breasts the merrier if you were a Cham in those days. Breasts were always full and pert; and if they didn’t have a female body to stick them on, they would use them as a decorative motif at the base of a pedestal or on an altar. It’s really one of those places where the breasts follow you around the room. Chams are, of course, still flourishing in Vietnam, and their ancient kingdom and artistic legacy dates from the 2nd century AD right up to 1832. I’d definitely recommend this museum, because the exhibits really are extraordinary.
Travelling on towards Hué, we had to negotiate the Hai Van Pass (the Pass of the Ocean Clouds), cutting through the centre of the Truong Son mountain range. Its twisty and bendy road takes you through 21 km of scary cliff edges and massive drops. They’ve built a tunnel now, so you can get from Da Nang to Hué much more quickly – but there’s nothing quite like some scenic terror to excite a bunch of tourists. At the absolute tip-top of the pass there’s a place you can get out and have a good look round – including some rather grotty stalls and a lot of souvenir tat. There’s also a very old watch tower – a cross between a sentry box and some old Victorian railway architecture – that Mrs C decided to scale. You can imagine it saw some horror during Vietnam’s turbulent history.
Lunch was at the Lang Co Beach Resort – and was a seafood extravaganza, so our three co-travellers revelled in it, whilst Mrs C and I pushed bits of floppy tentacle and scaly gills around our plates. We weren’t hungry anyway. It takes three hours in all to get from Hoi An to Hué, so by the time we got to our hotel we were pretty knackered. Hué was beautiful but incredibly humid. Turning up sweaty and disgusting somewhere as lovely as La Residence Hotel and Spa ought to be a crime against humanity – but we did it anyway.
We made ourselves presentable and then joined the rest of the group to visit the Tu Duc tomb. It’s one of the splendid Royal Mausoleums that are a must-see in Hué. Emperor Tu Duc was the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, reigning from 1848 to 1883. The tomb itself was constructed over three years in the 1860s, whilst the Emperor was still alive – indeed, he designed it. It is said that when he died, he was buried along with a great treasure, and, all those involved in his burial were later executed to keep his final resting place a secret. That’s some tough working conditions; that would never have happened if they’d been in the EU. Today it’s noted for beautiful artwork, classical architecture, and, with its idyllic lake close by, it’s a favourite spot for wedding photography. We saw a young couple being photographed, her in stunning scarlet, him in vivid yellow, posing with parasols and fans. They were having a great time, and larking around not inconsiderably, like the happy young lovers they were, thereby not always responding to the photographer’s requests, much to his obvious annoyance. At one point the photographer threw his wicker umbrella down in a hissy fit because the groom was giggling so much. We spent a long time at Tu Duc’s tomb – Hanh had an awful lot to say, and by the time she’d finished, it was nightfall and we were the last there.
There wasn’t a lot of time for a nap, so pretty soon after returning to the hotel we went out to find something for dinner – hopefully something that didn’t contain seafood. We found a vegetarian restaurant – Bo De – just around the corner from the hotel in what appeared to be a huge municipal car park with lots of restaurants and bars adjoining it by the side of the river. We had simple soup with vegetables and mushrooms and some mixed fried rice. Perfect. Afterwards we went for a walk by the water’s edge, and saw that they had lit up the road bridge over the river with bright colourful, constantly changing lights. It looked like the Forth Road Bridge on speed. Talking of which, one guy was definitely on drugs because we saw him running along the top edge of the bridge – not the road surface but actually on top of the cantilevers. That must have been pretty dangerous. We also saw a lad having a tattoo done, in a market stall in the street; so much for health and safety. Apparently it was 36 years to the day that Hué was liberated after the Vietnamese War – or as they call it, the American War – and I think that added to the general party spirit in the night-time streets.
The next morning it was time for something we’d been looking forward for ages. We were all to take a cyclo ride through the streets of Hué, starting at the hotel and ending up at the Imperial City. It’s a really fun experience. The cyclo is a weird thing. Imagine something that combines the seat of a baby’s pushchair, the front wheels of a wheelchair, the back wheel of a bike, and the footrest of a chair lift, and you’re part way there. You get into your contraption – to be honest you fall in – encouraged by your driver, then he gets on the saddle behind you so you can’t see him, and starts to pedal so you get propelled through the streets only a few feet higher than the road surface. It’s not long before you realise how physically strong these drivers must be to wheel a fat oaf like me around the streets – it’s not as though they’re big guys – and he deserved his generous tip at the end! But you do get a really unique perspective of the townscape, as you’re so much lower than if you were in a car – and much more exposed too, without the comfort of a car framework around you. Fortunately the roads of Hué don’t have loads of potholes.
We cycled through the streets, and over the road bridge, which was a bit scary, as we were competing for space with all the usual cars, lorries, bikes and mopeds that throng through any Asian city centre. You also experience a different kind of scary when you’re at the centre of a very large empty intersection – almost a sense of agoraphobia as there’s so much space around you that you feel vulnerable. Anyway, an hour later, we cyclo’d over the bridge that crosses the moat at the Citadel, through the long arch that acts as a sentry to the City, to our final destination alongside some ominous looking ancient cannons. The Citadel was established by Emperor Gia Long in 1805 and comprises three enclosures – the Civic, Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. The whole area is filled with palaces, pavilions and temples, protected by ramparts, moats and bastions. It’s a very evocative sight, and really works on your imagination. We spent a very enjoyable time there just looking round the temples and the palaces, admiring the colours and the artwork.There’s lots of restoration work going on at the moment; when it’s finished it will be extraordinary. Mind you, they’re still discovering and unearthing fresh ruins, so it could take some time.
We took a little drive out to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, apparently the tallest religious building in Vietnam. It’s a wonderful sight, seven storeys high, founded in 1601, and many consider it to be the iconic symbol of Hué. Perhaps even more astonishing was the incredible noise of the crickets when we got out of the bus. Deafening! There’s a little museum of Buddhism within the complex, which features some very unusual and amusing images of Buddha; and also a huge bronze bell, dating from 1710, whose ding-a-dong can apparently be heard six miles away. But perhaps the most fascinating – and thought-provoking – exhibit is the blue Austin car that drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in June 1963, where he immolated himself in protest against the Diem regime. It was a very brave and significant act of protest that horrified the entire world. Back in the peace of today, nearby are the monks’ quarters – we were told we might get to meet some monks but none was available for a chat. We did hear lots of tittering from their bathroom though.
Lunch was at Moc Vien – a very classy affair, with delicious food and simply beautiful toilets. They were so beautiful, we all kept going back to admire them. You can’t say fairer than that. The food was incredibly ornately presented; and, very kindly, they presented Mrs C with a beautiful, large bouquet for our wedding anniversary. Pity they were one day early, but it was a lovely thought. Then it was off to the airport for our Vietnam Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City, laden down with all our luggage, and a beautiful, large bouquet, which required its own overhead locker. In retrospect, not the most practical of parting gifts.