Indochina 2016 - Central Vietnam

Hoi An

I'd heard stories about Vietnam's railways - long, sweeping stretches, tall viaducts over plunging chasms, incredible vistas opening up before you - so I was looking forward to our journey down the country. In my mind I'd sleep deeply, wake early, and immerse myself in the sumptuous Vietnamese countryside emerging in dawn's pale light.

The Imperial Citadel, Hué

The reality wasn't quite like that. The train was one of the noisiest & bumpiest I've ever been on, certainly far rougher than any sleeper service I'd experienced. It was as if the old French tracks were still being used while the trains were now moving at twice the speed and hitting every uneven rail or set of points with much greater force, passing the resulting impacts directly to the captive travellers. Sheer exhaustion drove me to (frequently broken) shallow sleep after a while but my over-jostled stomach refused to digest my previous meal, leaving me bloated & nauseous at journey's end. As the train emerged into morning we passed through acres of flooded rice fields but the only way to photograph them was through the carriage windows, the few openable ones let a fierce blast of wind into the corridor, not very nice for those who were able to sleep. As we disembarked at Hué there were as many bags under eyes as those being lowered to the platformless ground below.

Although the small stations we'd passed through (without stopping) had displayed large name signs there were none visible at the larger stops. In theory they were announced over the tannoy but rather than a simple name each stop was heralded with a burst of music and a long stream of Vietnamese, presumably the name was in there but I was never able to discern it. The German couple who were sharing our cabin were getting understandably concerned about missing their destination but it turned out that they were, like us, going to Hué and we let them know when Vinh alerted us to our imminent departure.

Most of the group had suffered some sort of disturbed night's sleep but the tour schedule proceeded as if we'd had just another stopover. After a short stop to unload at the hotel we were off to visit the Imperial Citadel, a huge walled fortress that was the home of Vietnamese Emperors from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th. The vast complex had survived in good order until the Vietnam War when, in 1968, the fierce fighting there escalated to the point where the majority of buildings were substantially damaged - according to Wikipedia of the 160 only 10 remain today, although there seemed to be a few more than that. After going round the larger ones with Vinh & the group I wandered off on my own for a hour (having established a rendezvous for later) and marvelled at the huge site with its odd collection of surviving buildings.

Lunch was at another local (rather than touristy) place, the food was excellent but I went for a very light option while my stomach continued to recover from the train trip.

In the afternoon we drove out to the Tu Duc mausoleum, the burial place of one of the Emperors from Hué's imperial past. The site was meant to be an idyllic resting place for the Emperor's spirit but it had a very funereal & morose atmosphere which the grey skies did little to dissipate. From there we went on to the Thien Mu Pagoda which had a much more Chinese style than the Indian influenced temples we'd seen elsewhere on the tour. A group of monks were singing, accompanied by strikes on a small gong, which gave a devotional atmosphere that was nice to just stand and enjoy - some of the more stubborn tour guides continued with their rote narration but even these backed off after a while.

Family diner, Hué

That evening Vinh had arranged for us to eat at a small diner run by friends of his family so we piled into a large taxi and were driven across town to the venue. The dining room was a neat & tidy space, set out with a low table & chairs, a cabinet of drinks, a large fish tank (we never found out if this was a pet or potential entree) and open to the street at one end. Before the meal we were given a brief run down of the cooking process and afterwards Vinh translated our questions for the couple who ran it. The food was, naturally, superb and it was really nice to eat in a more intimate setting.

Next morning there was an optional bike tour, a daunting prospect considering what we'd seen on the roads (the day before I'd seen someone texting while driving a scooter) but within a few minutes we'd escaped the city streets and were pedalling along raised paths between rice paddies. The grey skies & light rain we'd had since reaching Hué swelled into a torrential downpour and drove us to the shelter of a small café but this passed in a few minutes and we continued our ride under overcast but dry skies. The lanscape reduced to shades of grey/blue with a few green highlights - the flooded fields became vast mirrors reflecting the clouded grey skies with just a handful of reeds & trees, each with their sharp reflection, and the thin line of the horizon providing any detail. It sounds monotonous but it was strangely beautiful, like being inside a Japanese ink drawing. The moist air seemed to mute the few sounds, adding to the timeless quality and sense of tranquility. A wonderful experience.

On the return journey through Hué I rode with unexpected confidence, once again keeping to a smooth, regular pace and letting the locals take avoiding action. Strange how quickly we become accustomed to different ways of interacting when we'd immersed in them.

From Hué we drove to the coast and down to Hoi An, our base for the next three nights. We were staying at a 'resort' this time and it was appreciably more luxurious than the hotels we'd been staying in - my room was huge and very tastefully decorated, the bathroom was big & well equipped, and out back was an external shower with stone walls and wide green leaves reaching in almost to join me. After unpacking my case and indulging in a leisurely shower I joined Vinh and some of the others for a first look at Hoi An itself.

The town was quaintly beautiful, a series of fortuitous circumstances had protected it from wartime devestation or blinkered redevelopment and its Old Town is now protected with World Heritage Site status. The central area is (mostly) pedestrianised which made it much more relaxing to wander around while its tourist-focussed economy meant lots of bars & restaurants and more conventional shops than in other areas (although bargaining was still the norm). Much of the town was lit by decorative lanterns in the evening which provided a wonderfully soft, glowing illumination. All in all it looked like a very nice place to spend a few days.

Lantern shop, Hoi An

And so it proved. After the (relatively) full schedule of the last few days it was nice to have lots of free time in a place that was so tourist-friendly. I strolled around the town, both alone and with people from the group, visiting the cultural attractions, checking out the shops (I even bought some shirts!), prowling for photographs and eating & drinking very well indeed. In between I repacked some of my purchases for protection from long-haul baggage handlers, wrote long-overdue emails to friends & family, and swam in the resort pool - there's something I love about swimming outdoors in the rain.

Our one planned excursion was another cycling tour. under the leadership of a particularly bubbly & enthusiastic young woman we rode out from the town and were soon out among the rice fields again. The route seemed very well established, first stop was at the extensive garden of a delightfully spry elderly couple, then a home distillery where rice wine was refined into a smooth but powerful spirit. Not only was this totally legal but the resulting drink, inevitably packaged in repurposed plastic water bottles, sold for just a few pounds per litre. I'd have brought some back with me but I didn't have much confidence in the resilience of the containers or of explaining it to UK customs inspectors. More on this later. The last stop was at a group of 'islands' of water coconut plants, we were ferried out in circular boats who's rowers displayed great skill using their single oar and who created comical headgear for us from the leaves. On our way back we passed a huge cemetery set within the rice fields, rows of marble headstones tucked in very close together.

On my final evening in Hoi An I discovered a shop selling t-shirts with old communist posters printed on them, something I'd been searching for since entering Vietnam. My political sensibilities may have moved on but the dramatic socialist iconography still appeals to me, especially where the Sino/Soviet styles are modified by local influences. After having a few problems with the big numbers on Vietnamese banknotes - the 10,000 and 100,000 Dong notes were annoyingly similar - it was smugly amusing to be given too much change when the shop assistant mixed up the two notes herself. She was gushingly thankful when I pointed it out.

After our long sojourn we were back to an early start for our flight to Saigon the next morning. With two thirds of our tour completed we'd be visiting the south of the country before heading inland to Cambodia for the last section before returning home.

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