Vagabonding in Vietnam Part II — Creeping Northwards

Hoi An – Graceful and Genial Town

We had high expectations long before arriving in Hoi An.  Many travelers we met previously raved about the place and from the get-go the town did not disappoint.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town packs in an impressive assortment of historic temples, bridges, merchant homes, picturesque alleyways, grand French colonial buildings, and creaky wooden boats along the riverside docks.  Paul and I were happy to be in the thick atmosphere and elegance of this stunning town in Vietnam.

Once a thriving port town, the Thu Bon River silted up in the late 1800’s basically turning Hoi An into a ghost town, its old quarter effectively locked in time for a century.  After the economic rebound of Vietnam in the 1990’s, Hoi An was well positioned to gain restoration funds for the historic buildings and a flood of tourists followed suit.

Today Hoi An is a heavily touristed town but it fortunately maintains a delicate balance between the needs of visitors and the laid-back locals.  The old quarter consists of a relatively compact area, filled with monuments and buildings worth visiting.  Another highlight of Hoi An is its culinary richness.  We were immediately smitten with the food offerings in Hoi An, remarkable in a country celebrated for delectable food on every corner.

Restaurants compete to offer quality, cosmopolitan cuisine with striking success.  The lively market along the river teems with fresh produce, assorted grains, delectable fruits, rich coffee, and food stalls featuring piping hot pho and stir fried com.

The many of the marvelous French colonial villas have been converted to eateries: we sat in cafés savoring real cappuccinos, dipping spoons into green-tea and mango ice cream, and sipping gin and tonics on terraces along the riverfront.

Paul and I wasted no time in exploring the area:  We visited the wooden Japanese Covered Bridge, still operational as a water crossing and Buddhist temple after 500 years.  We toured the dark mahogany homes of long-gone merchants, the creaky rooms filled with fine porcelain, silver decorations, and antique furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs.  Several Chinese community assembly halls are scattered in the old town.  Founded centuries ago, these centers attest to the strong Chinese influence in Hoi An that remains to this day.  We drifted through the incense-thick air of the historic pagodas and temples, sat in blooming gardens, and admired the views from bridges and parts.  The compact old town kept us entertained (and sated) for days.

When the hot sun sinks over the Thu Bon River, Hoi An puts on a new face.  Silk lamps light up restaurants along the waterfront, amber candles appear on tables in bars and cafes, paper votive boats are are lit and set upon the river, releasing wishes as they float away.  Food vendors line the riverfront offering tasty treats, musicians play traditional Vietnamese tunes, and sauntering tourists and spirited locals commingle in the streets.

Wandering the evening elegance of Hoi An became a highly enjoyable nightly routine for us during our stay.  Each night was filled with new discoveries of food and festivities.

Day Tripping Around Hoi An

A couple days Paul and I rented bicycles (for $1!) and set off for the beach.  An easy, flat road about 5 km from Hoi An’s old town, the An Bang beach was a great place to kick back away from the throes of tourists and who congregate on the closer (and crowded) Cua Dai beaches.  Fortunately An Bang offers just a short string of bamboo bungalow restaurants selling basic meals, fruit shakes and of course cold beers.

My first trip there was complicated by a slight mishap: I got a flat tire several kilometers from the bike shop which effectively rendered me a pedestrian in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately Paul was able to ride off and found a nice teenager who agreed to fix it for just about a dollar.  So before we could finish a can of beer, a newly patched bicycle was delivered to me and my afternoon outing was saved.

The An Bang beach is marvelously unspoiled for now: it boasts long stretches of golden sand, cooling blue waters, and big waves to play in.  I jogged along the sands, passing local fisherman building or repairing their thatch coracles (woven boats sealed with tar).  I spotted an Australian wedding party at beach bungalow, celebrating barefoot and with sunglasses — the perfectly chill way to get hitched!  The low-key attitude, swaying palm trees, rippling waves, colorful seashells, and smiling faces of the locals make An Bang a paradise.

But sadly change is coming, and soon.  Already the foundations for two large resorts are being set just north of the beach.  This will undoubtedly change the character of An Bang forever.  In fact, the whole region is being heavily developed.  Days later as we departed Hoi An along the coastal road north to Danang, we passed nothing but a long swath of luxury hotels, golf courses, and gated communities.  Vietnam’s “For Sale” sign is conspicuous around Hoi An, in a few short years the shore will be hardly recognizable.

Fortunately for now, Hoi An and environs remain a place of special beauty.  We pedaled on dusty lanes along the dykes that cut through the rice paddies, waving to locals preparing the fields for the coming rains, dodging cows and chickens and pot-bellied pigs, and pointing at water buffalo soaking nonchalantly the muddy waters.  Along the river we passed men fishing with bamboo poles, laughing children swimming, and scores of ducks floating effortlessly towards the sea.  A lively and lovely scene everywhere we looked.

One day we visited the My Son archeological site about an hour inland from Hoi An.  This is an ancient Cham city (early Hindu conquerors to the region) was founded in the 4th century AD and occupied for over 1,000 years, making it the longest inhabited city in the Mekong region.

My Son is situated in a beautiful valley surrounded by green mountains, but sadly the temples were badly damaged by heavy U.S. bombing in the war.  Fewer than a third of the original 68 buildings are still standing.  The largest temple, known as A1, was completely destroyed.  There is some rebuilding underway but given the near total devastation, I can’t imagine how this could be successful.  Thankfully some of the remaining temples preserve some fine details of the delicate Cham aesthetic.

We took the boat back to Hoi An from the My Son ruins, enjoying a light lunch, cold beers and a stopover on an island village bustling with the manufacture of handicrafts: wood sculptures, joss sticks, textiles and other products for the Hoi An tourist market.

After a restful few days in Hoi An, we sadly bid adieu to its fine food, fun beaches, welcoming nature and graceful atmosphere.  Our travels continued north towards Hué, our final stop in the former South Vietnam.

Hué – Imperial Heart of Vietnam

We eagerly boarded the train in Danang for the three-hour ride to Hué, described by the guidebook as one of the most beautiful stretches in Vietnam.  The views were unbeatable: steep mountains carpeted with emerald jungle forests sloping dramatically to a turquoise sea, the shore dotted with with hidden coves and pristine stretches of golden sand.

We alighted in Hué, another center of Vietnamese culture.  It features the magnificent Citadel, the imperial home to Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty from the early 1800’s until World War II.  Perched beside the Perfume River (Song Huong), this massive forbidden city contains palaces, pagodas, temples, tombs, gardens, moats, libraries, theaters, and a plethora of other buildings fit for royalty.  Unfortunately many were badly damaged or destroyed by U.S. bombing raids in the early 1970’s.  The Hué region, just south of the border with North Vietnam, suffered some of the most intense fighting during the war.  Fortunately the crumbling Citadel still makes a grand impression of Vietnam’s former imperial’ power and wealth.

Paul and I were famished by our tour of the massive imperial city, so we crossed the Perfume River and wandered the streets of Hué on the opposite bank until we arrived at the Lien Hoa vegetarian restaurant.  We feasted on perhaps our finest veggie hot pot in all of Vietnam.  Highly authentic, the restaurant was packed with locals enjoying a weekend meal with friends and family.  Our bellies stuffed, we ambled slowly back to the train station to await the night train to Hanoi.  Within hours, we would be crossing the venerable 17th parallel, marking the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on our course north to Hanoi.

Hanoi – City of the Soaring Dragon

Where to begin with Hanoi?  The city is both dazzling and frustrating, a veritable dichotomy between substance and lore, pragmatism and fanaticism, sobriety and frivolity.  Elusive Hanoi was always just out of my reach.

We set our bags down in the crowded, chaotic Old Quater for a couple days perplexed by its winding streets overflowing with scooters and bicycles, buildings piled high with extended families packed into small apartments, sidewalks overloaded with piles of debris and smoky food stalls blocking pedestrian traffic, roving vendors selling counterfeit merchandise (Paul’s favorites were the The Not So North Face backpacks), and beer joints on congested corners with small plastic stools spilling into the busy streets, inches from passing motor traffic.  Hanoi is a crazed and confused world.

We found solace in our comfortable hotel located in a quiet alley in the heart of the Old Quarter.  Our spacious room had nice French colonial features and a balcony overlooking the apartments directly across the alley.  After a couple days observing the neighbors at close range, we practically knew their entire daily routine and family dynamics.

I can’t say that the cuisine of Hanoi was a highlight of our trip, since so much of the street food is meat heavy.  Some of these sidewalk stalls have been operated by the same families for decades and are renown for their special recipes and thus frequented by the locals who queue in long lines for the more reputable eateries.  We did have some decent meals, but probably our most memorable moments were simply meeting fellow travelers at the “beer corners”, where you grab cheap and cold bottles of brew and sit on low plastic stools that spill into the streets.  These are frequented by locals and visitors alike; we kept running into the same people and enjoyed hours of lively conversation as we watched the busy, bustling “museum of the streets” pass by in front of us.

We didn’t just sit around in our hotel and bars in Hanoi, we did a lot of walking too: around Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of Old Hanoi, taking in its Buddhist temples, tai chi practitioners, young lovers flirting (or heavily petting), and vendors selling sweets and snacks to idling passersby.

We hoofed across town to the seriously old Temple of Literature, an exceptional 1,000-year-old structure dedicated in 1070 AD to Confucius and later an esteemed university for the mandarins.  The temple remains in great shape, we were content to contemplate its graceful roofed gateways and peaceful courtyards, giving us a break from the city chaos outside its walls.

We attended a water puppet show, a curious art form originating in Vietnam.  Apparently it sprang from the New Year celebrations traditionally held at the beginning of the rainy season, the puppets tell age-old stories of good/evil, love/loss, etc. and were performed in the water-filled rice paddies.  Our performance, not in a paddy but a proper theater, included a wonderful orchestra playing traditional Vietnamese music to accompany the water puppets as they scurried animatedly through the waters.  Dragons, warriors, birds, farmers, damsels, water buffalo…  puppets of all sorts appeared in rapid succession.  While we had no idea what the stories were about (sung in Vietnamese) we were entertained by the fast-moving action and visual effects such as spraying water and flaming swords.

On our final day we visited the notorious Hoa Loa Prison, a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton” where downed U.S. pilots spent several rough years as POW’s.   We saw John McCain’s flight suit that was held by North Vietnam after his crash.  The museum, in my opinion, goes overboard in demonstrating how well the U.S. prisoners were treated and how happily they spent their time playing cards, shooting hoops and making Christmas cards.  It was clearly an oversimplification of their experience with a few exceptional episodes cherry picked for the exhibit; the general substandard conditions and harsh treatment of prisoners were not included.  The museum does include the torture of Vietnamese by the French during the Indochine years. I didn’t know that the history of torture and other atrocities of the Maison Centrale prison dates from the 1880’s until it was dismantled in the 1990’s.  A sobering and fascinating visit, Hoa Loa underscores yet another tragic dimension of war.

Northern Hanoi is a sharp contrast to the softer, sultrier Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the south.  We found Hanoians less open, the weather harsher with frequent chilly rains, and the city serious and steadfast.  While I can’t say that Hanoi has the charms of Saigon, our visit was well worthwhile and a necessary stop to round out our survey of the fascinating and contradictory worlds of Vietnam.

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