First impressions of the old southern capital. Continue reading “Saigon and Cu Chi”
A few days in da lat.
– A city of tailors
The three of us slept very well during our first night in Hoi an as we were exhausted from the odyssey that we had undergone the day before. When we woke up we had the pleasant surprise of finding two school friends, Adam and Archie, waiting in our homestay lobby.
This was of course not by accident but a organised meet up, our friends are travelling north so we knew that we would cross paths at some point. Once we had a lovely breakfast we started walking through the town looking for tailors as Hoi An is known for that craft. The town is magical and beautiful, roads lined by green trees go through orange buildings dating back to French administration. The roads are overhung with yellow and orange lanterns hanging from above and communists/Vietnamese flags on the side.
We walked past many tailors, their walls full of silks and other such materials and also many leather shops in which you can get custom shoes, handbags or coats. We had a look at a few tailors and decided to get ourselves a tailored suit. The hard part was deciding what materials to go for, in the end I went for a light blue with a bright inner lining. After they took many measurements we were told to come back tomorrow to see if they fit. In the evening I decided to go walk to the beach. The road to the beach took me past a beautiful river which was lined by coconut trees on one side and rice paddies on the other. Eventually I made it to the beach and I strolled north for a while looking at a group of islands on the horizon. The walk back took me a ‘bit’ longer as I got lost but I was able to view a stunning sunset over the rice fields and the river. Seeing the traditional fishing boats floating in the orange light next to the rice paddies made the longer walk worth it. In total the little walk to the beach and back took me two hours.
In hoi an we discovered something we had not yet encountered, the legendary Bahn Mi. The Bahn Mi is a legacy of French influence on Vietnamese culture. It is a baguette filled with meat (mostly beef or chicken) vegetables and many sauces. We quickly grew very fond of these and had them at least once a day. As evidence of french colonial administration gets stronger the further south you go, so do the Bahn Mi shop frequency increases and their products in taste.
The nights where usually spend in a hotel that offered unlimited drinks for two hours, and at night we saw something we had not seen yet, that being completely empty roads (cities like Bangkok or Hanoi never sleep). One evening we met up with the older brother of one of our mates who was working in Da Nang (something in renewable energy). It was interesting to hear him discuss the pros and cons of working in Vietnam (the latter mainly being the corruption). Also we found several bars that sold beers for 3000 VND which is about 10cent.
During the days we would often rent bikes and cycle through the town or down to the beach. One day near the end of our stay there I went back to the tailor to pick up the last items I had purchased there and decided to visit the old town. This area was closed to motorised vehicles and full of pedestrians, both locals and a fair amount of tourists. The old town was full of beautiful pale yellow colonial buildings, all of which had paint crumbling of their walls, however that only added to their charm. These buildings also usually had this green plant growing on them with intense purple flowers. In these shops you could find many things, from leather products to colourful spices, from silks and fine cloths to fake Adidas and Nike shirts. As I continued my bike ride trough this part of town I reached the river on which there where many long wooden boats with ladies in rice hats slowly gliding above the sunset dyed calm waters. The river was lined by the colonial style buildings, Chinese lanterns and tall trees. Crossing the river was made possible by a very old bridge which separated the Chinese and Japanese districts. As it was getting darker I decided to head back along the river. I cycled through a market full of fruit I have never seen before and big strange looking fish gazing at me with their big eyes from the piles of ice they where kept on. My way back took a bit longer than it should have as I got lost again which I did not mind however as I was cycling through peaceful rice fields as the sun was setting.
A day after we first went to the tailor we came back to check if our suits needed any readjustments, the ones that needed readjustment where told to come back the next day. After all of us where satisfied we had our suits packed up and put in a parcel for sea shipping (they should arrive in 3 months).
Saying goodbye to Hoi An was hard as our room and home stay had been amazing, and the town was magical. From the windows of the bus we had one last look at Hoi An before heading south on the road to Nha Thrang.
The hai van pass also known as the ‘Cloud Pass’ is a natural boundary between north and south Vietnam and even centuries ago was the boundary between ancient kingdoms. The Hai Van pass is also of great strategic importance which can be seen in the remains of French and American defensive positions on it. Finally the Hai van pass is also a climatical border as the weather is dramatically different on either side.
We got our bikes in the morning, three Yamahas that looked alright from the outside, a lot better than what we had feared they would be. So with our day packs and some bribe money in our pocket (incase we should encounter any corrupt policemen) we set of on this adventure. Our first journey was to the petrol station, which took a lot longer than it should as we kept on getting lost. Driving in the streets of Hue was very hectic but also very fun as we would slalom through cars and bikes, drive through markets and avoid potholes. We soon reached the motorway and started cruising towards our destination. The driving became less of a crazy free for all, even though the occasional lorry would still force us on to the hard shoulder. The motorway soon became very empty and we could test how well the bikes went. Jamie’s bike had the odd property or sounding a loud bang every time he let go of the acceleration. I was also overjoyed when I found out that I could whizz past the others on my red Yamaha as by luck of the draw my bike was by far the fastest. The three of us would often drive next to each other when the road was empty, sun in our face and wind in our hair. Soon though dark clouds covered the sun and a rainstorm started pouring down on us drenching me and harry. (Jamie was thoughtful enough to buy a poncho, me and harry only had “waterproof” jackets. (They where not waterproof)).
Nevertheless we continued riding through the countryside and soon we reached the mountains and spotted a little village in which we looked for a place to eat. We found a place with tables that looked like we could buy some food and asked if they had any pho (standard noodle soup with meat). The people here did not understand a word of what we said apart from pho so we sat down and waited for the food. Cold, wet and hungry we received the pho and started eating. However the bits of meat didn’t taste good and very different to the meat we have had previously. Looking around the restaurant we saw many short haired dogs, the same type we saw on a BBQ in Hanoi and then we realised what kind of pho this was. We were eating dog.
Needless to say we did not have anymore of the meat but hungry and cold as I was I could not resist eating a few more spoonfuls of noodle and broth. Luckily it stopped raining and we paid for the pho (cheapest pho we have ever had) and I bought a poncho from an old lady. We continued our ride on the motorway until the road suddenly split off into two, one of whom lead to the hai van pass the other to the tunnel. (The tunnel build around a decade ago meant that there was almost no traffic on the pass apart from oil trucks that weren’t allowed in the tunnel, occasional tourist busses and other bikes). We continued up the empty road that was winding itself up the jungle covered mountains until we had a beautiful view of a beach below. The beach was walled of by mountains and on it was a huge modern bridge leading to a near by island. Around the bridge where the traditional long wooden fishing boats. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson this is a perfect representation of Vietnam, the mountains and the coast and the traditional meeting the modern. It really was a beautiful sight to see from the empty winding mountain road. We continued to drive up the mountain roads (it had not rained since we left the village and even the sun decided to smile down on us occasionally) when we saw the pass in the distance. Once we reached it we were not alone anymore as there where a few tourists up there and some ladies trying to sell us the usual shenanigans and petrol that came in plastic bottles. We parked our bikes and started climbing the mountain a bit until we reached the defences the French and American had left behind. After climbing on top of one of them we had an amazing view of the coast, the mountains and the winding road we had conquered previously. We could also only imagine the heavy fighting these battle scared defences must have witnessed.
And so we started on the journey down to Da Nang we could see some beautiful islands with white sandy beaches bellow the mountains. On this road we passed maybe two busses and a few cows, apart front that we had it to ourselves. After driving down this beautiful road we reached Da Nang and drove through the city. We stopped to have some drinks and rested for a while in a road side cafe. As we continued on our way we drove over the beach promenade, a beautiful wide empty road with palm trees on either side and on which we could see the beach. Sadly though the rain started again so we decided not to see the marble mountains and headed towards hoi an. At one left corner I had a bit of an incident which involved my bike slipping and me hitting the curb (bike did not fall down, a lot less dramatic than it sounds) After examining my bike I found the cause of my slip, the bike stand had became loose and was hanging down touching the road, which meant that on sharp left turns it would lift the back wheel into the air. After fixing this problem with a bit of rope I had in my bag we continued on a road that became increasingly un-drivable with potholes the size of small children.
The rain was very heavy and the sight because increasingly bad which meant that potholes became harder to spot. This lead to us occasionally bouncing into the air, testing the suspension and our skills to keep the bike standing and us from crashing to the extreme. Our road seemed to increasingly lead us in the wrong direction as it because smaller and smaller and further into villages and forests away from our destination. Very tired from a day of riding we hoped that we would arrive soon as the sun was setting.
Finally after 8 hours of driving our bikes, through beautiful rice fields with triangular hats poking out of the lush green and busy cities with traffic worse than any where west of the Ural Mountains, through mountains with stunning views and beaches with waves rolling in, through rain storms and sunshine we arrived at our homestay, our own very nice room with three queen sized beds and our own bathroom. This would turn out to be the nicest place we had stayed at yet (and it cost less than a hostel in a big city).
Linked below is a video of the Top Gear presenters doing the same journey in reverse (Hoi an to Hue). You will se them at first driving along the beach road I describe near the end (we also got tailored suits in Hoi an, just not quite as funky) then around 3 minutes in to the clip you will see them contour the hai van pass.
PS. I forgot to talk about the toilet in the place we had the dog pho. It was a pig stile. And that is not describing the state of the facilities but the fact that there where three big pink pigs running around.
Also I haven’t really talked about the currency here, Vietnamese dong. Apart from a name that has been the source of a lot of immature banter it is also fun to note that we are all millionaires for the first time in our lives. (1$ = 23000). And finding 50000 on the floor sounds a lot more impressive than it is.
After a gruelling 14 hour sleeper bus journey, on which we were destroyed by bed bugs (the blankets don’t get washed after a journey) and during which we crossed the old border, we arrived in Hue. After leaving the bus we got swarmed by moped drivers aggressively asking us “Hey you, where you go !”, we told them the name of the hotel and that we would walk there as it was just around the corner. The moped drivers and even our bus driver told us it would be a 20 minute walk and that we should take the moped taxi. We declined and walked for about one and a half minutes to our hotel which was, after all, just around the corner.
We dropped our bags in our rooms had lunch and walked to the perfume river. Our trip for the day was the Citadel. What we did not know was that the perfume river was absolutely enormous and walking to the bridge and across it would take ages. We then saw a few dragon boats on the shore and asked how much it was to be taken to the citadel. The 10 minute journey in our own dragon boat was about 1$ per person. As we jumped of the boat (literally jumped as there was no pier) we could see the walls of the citadel and headed toward them. After passing a variety of cannons and crossing a moat we took a look at the citadel. The landscape around this impressive system of defences was full of old trees with pale yellow flowers and the castle inside had a beautiful roof with dragons coming out of the corners, painted in red and orange. This, to the best of my knowledge, was the seat of the emperors and capital of Vietnam until just after the Second World War.
In the evening I (the other boys where not feeling well) met up with two girls (one of whom I knew from school) who had bought motorbikes in Saigon and are driving them up to Hanoi, which was very impressive considering they had little or no biking experience beforehand. One thing I found interesting about the Hue nightlife was that western travellers went to the same bars and clubs as the locals, something that did not occur in Hanoi. (I recommend the DMZ bar).
After a lovely breakfast in our hotel we gave our big bags away to be send to our next stop and rented bikes to ride over the hai van pass to hoi an.
A landscape formed by an ancient dragon, hidden lagoons, glowing water and being castaway on an Island. Continue reading “A Story of Dragons and Plankton”