Vietnam: Huế & Hội An

Huế

Travel from South to North Vietnam or the other way round? I guess, this is a very common question that you will probably ask if you plan to travel to Vietnam one day. Well, I guess, either way, it doesn’t make much difference. I think it all depends if Vietnam is your only travel destination of you have the next one after. What we did was travelling from North (Hanoi) and make our way towards South (Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon). Air Asia is your best bet to travel around SE Asian countries.

After the two magnificent places – Hanoi & Halong Bay, we continued our journey South to our next destination – Hue. Getting to Hue from Hanoi by overnight train was definitely an experience for me! We got 2 soft sleepers in a 4 berth cabin, the cost about £20 per person. It was a 12-hour overnight train, we shared the cabin with a Vietnamese family of 3.

The 12-hours-sleeping-on-a-not-very-comfortable-soft-sleeper went by quickly. I just remembered I slept pretty ok until I awoke to nature’s call in the middle of the night. I hesitated to go to the toilet (because I know it wasn’t going to be very pleasant), but, I had to! I didn’t know someone was using it until I pushed the door hard enough and it bounced back. I was taken aback by it. Opssss! It was dark inside, there wasn’t any switch.  The first ray of sunlight shone through the curtain at 5 am . I was still pretty tired, but the kid next to us was all ready to welcome his morning. I sighed, closed my eyes and tried hard to go back to my dreamland.

We reached Hue. A short taxi ride got us to our hotel. The hot morning sun already made me sweat. After a long cold shower and breakfast, we were ready to explore Hue. Hue, is famous for its monuments and architecture. The highlight of Hue was back 1802-1945, during the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. A sleepy town it’s called, what are the to-dos in Hue? What about:

1. Imperial City, Hue

Imperial City of Hue  is a walled fortress and palace in Hue, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was surrounded by a wall and the walls were surrounded by a moat. Inside the Imperial City was the imperial enclosure called the Forbidden Purple City. The Forbidden Purple City was used solely by the emperor and his family. The idea to explore the extremely huge Imperial City under the scorching sun didn’t really appeal to me. Instead, we took a buggy, which was a great way to see the whole Imperial City.

2. A Boat Ride On The Perfume River

Well, the name does appeal to me a lot – Perfume river. According to Wikipedia, in the autumn, flowers from orchards upriver from Hue fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. I didn’t experience that though, perhaps, it wasn’t autumn there. I thought there are only 2 seasons in SE Asia? Anyway, a boat ride on the river was definitely a great way to see the locals everyday’s lives. People living along the river depend a lot on the river, using the water to do their washing and bathing.

3. Don’t Miss Out Hue Food!

Hue is famous for its distinctive  food. If you mention about Hue, what instantly comes to mind is Bún bò Huế, Hue-style beef rice vermicelli in a spicy broth. I did try it out for breakfast at the hotel and I really love the soup that is full of lemongrass flavour, with hint of Polygonum/Vietnamese Mint/Daun Kesom. Instantly, it reminds the taste of Asam Laksa. Instantly, I fell in love with Bún bò Huế, not just because I can relate it to a dish that I know, but the broth that is full of so many different flavours – sweetness, sourness and spiciness! Of course, not to mention, the tender slices of beef!

Well, other than that, I wanted to know if there are many more to try? The receptionist at the Hotel was a very helpful and friendly young Vietnamese woman. I asked her for dining options. She suggested a shop nearby, called Hang Me (45 Vo Thi Sau, Hue City Vietnam). She said to me, “Make sure you try these 3 items before you leave, they are Hue specialties” : Bánh Bèo, BánhLoc, and Banh Nậm.

Above: Hang Me shop entrance, Banh Nậm

Above: Bánh Bèo. Below: BánhLoc

4. Dong Ba Market

Dong Ba Market in Old Hue is near the place where the Dong Ba Canal joins the Perfume River. Foodies or anyone with great interest in Vietnamese food and culture should visit Dong Ba Market. The maintenance of ancient characteristics makes an unforgettable impression to visitors. Dong Ba Market is near the eastern corner of the Citadel and nearby a commercial district stretches along Dong Ba Canal. Vendors stretched along both sides of the streets, with the crowds and motorbikes, made it pretty difficult to navigate around. You just have to squeeze through and watch out the traffic. The setting reminds me of Pasar Pagi/Pasar Malam in Malaysia.

Danang – Hội An

There was a slight hiccup in our schedule when we were trying to plan our next destination from Hue. Initially, we planned to take the overnight train from Hue to Danang in order to spend one full day in Danang. Unfortunately, the overnight train was fully booked and we didn’t want to travel by train in the morning as that would mean to waste the day on the train. The receptionist at the hotel was kind enough to find out other option, which was to take a coach. It was a slightly more than 6 hours drive to Danang from Hue.

Danang is located midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, on the coast of South China Sea. Danang is blessed with beautiful beaches and one of the famous nearby is China Beach, which is actually a series of beaches that stretch 30km between Hoi An and Danang. A lot of tourirsts neglect Danang and in favour of the nearby Hue and Hoi An, I think, Danang is an upcoming place for beach holiday.

One thing I have noticed, the Vietnamese people flock to the sea and the beach when the sun has set. A quick dip in the water, and then, savour delicious food on the beach couldn’t have been any better! I guess, just like me, I think it’s mad to stay under the sun when it’s very hot. I tend to stay under the shades and still pretty much not used to the idea of sunbathing!

Hoi An wasn’t in our plan because of our tight schedule and that was also why we were based in Danang. After finding out it would take only 45 minutes on a motorbike to get to Hoi An, we had to change our plan immediately. Motorbike rental is cheap in Vietnam, costs between USD5 – USD7. As our hotel is pretty close to the coast line, we were told we just had to follow the coast and head south. Along the the coastal line in Danang, a lot of developments were taking place: luxury residential, hotels, huge golf courses…. it’s definitely an upcoming tourist spot.

The Old Town of Hoi An is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The old houses and life in Hoi An old town definitely made me feel that I had been brought back to 150 years ago. Strolling along the narrow lanes was definitely the best way to explore this ancient town. Tailor-made clothing is one of the best trades in Hoi An. Good quality of silk can be found here. Just imagine that some shops can get your order ready within 3 hours – was probably the fastest tailor-made clothing service that I have ever found so far! Apart from that, handmade silk lanterns are hot items too!

Visited a silk workshop (41 Le Loi Street) where the whole process from silkworm to woven fabric can be seen and fabrics purchased, was probably one of the highlights in Hoi An. Photography wasn’t allowed, so I can’t share any photos. :( I didn’t know how silk (that a lot of people love) is produced until we went to check out the workshop! Definitely an eye-opener. If you are keen to know, this might be a good read.

Hoi An old town may look pretty in daylight, when night falls, it becomes even more attractive! The whole place turned into a town of lights. Colourful lanterns were lit up as the sun set, gave me a surreal feeling of the town’s existence. As the night fell, we thought we had better to fill our hungry tummies before making our way back to Danang. Food wise, there are lots of restaurants in Hoi An town. I read a lot of a dish that I had to try while in Hoi An, that is Cao Lau. Cao Lau is a dish of doughy flat noodles with herbs, bean sprouts, topped with pork slices and served in a savoury broth.

I didn’t do much research about food and restaurants in Hoi An as it was a last minute addition to our plan. So, we just used the same old tactic, walked around and observed – whichever restaurant looked busy and with lots of local patrons, that must be good! In the end, we went into the restaurant (which I forgot to note down the name!) that looked pretty much up to our requirements. I sticked to my plan and did give Cao Lau a try but I didn’t quite like it as how I like Phở or Bún bò Huế. At least, I tried!