Vietnam, a week in the middle

We depart from Singapore’s Changi Terminal 4 for the first time. What an impressive terminal, spacious and airy with 6 moving sculptures with computer controlled programs and their movement set to music.  The departure level has dedicated areas where one can doze on couches with the light dimmed.  Those airports that seem to think we should not be able to lie down and sleep while in transit and design seating accordingly should take note. 

Changi Terminal 4 sculptures
Adult seating Terminal 4 Changi

Our flight Vietnam Airlines was uneventful but we did notice that during the usual announcements that three times they mentioned that any passenger opening an aeroplane door would be subject to a 20,000,000 Dong fine. Something that only happens in Vietnam?

A clever feature of our arrival at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport in Ho Chi Min City is the issuing of stickers to passengers connecting to a domestic flight which allows ground staff to help direct you to the baggage drop off, which is not obvious, and then onwards to the nearby domestic terminal. While waiting to board our flight we notice that each gate has one or more “gate change” whiteboards.  Their use becomes apparent as one is used to advise us our departure gate has changed from 15 to 8.  At our arrival at gate 8 there they are writing on another board that the flight from gate 8 has moved to gate 7!

Our destination is Da Nang, where we are spending a week in the region visiting both Huế and Hội An to see the historic sights that each has to offer. It seems a little strange as we head to our hotel by taxi to be surrounded by two wheeled vehicles and not be riding on one. We had decided that we were not in motorcycle riding mode. Without our usual protective gear and in a more relaxed frame of mind, we would stick to four wheels.

The last few years have seen regular reports on the progress of developing software and hardware   for driverless vehicles.  It stuck me in both Da Nang and Hué as I watched traffic merging seamlessly on roundabouts without priority or incident and the myriad of directions that mopeds, motorcycles, cars and other vehicles come from that perhaps the software developers could learn a thing or two here.  Having said that with 14,000 deaths on the road and over half on motorcycles, there is probably quite a way to go before we see full automation on the roads.

We are surprised at the number of Christmas decorations we have seen and shops playing Christmas Carols both in Da Nang and Hué.  They are not here for us westerners, but seem to be be for local middle class and popular with children based on the number of small Santa suits we see. Not what we expected.

Locals out to see the Christmas lights and decorations in Hué
Christmas deliveries via Amazon Prime?
The three wise men at Christmas

The “Renunciation Express” a term used for trains that travel between Ho Chi Min City and Hanoi are referred to is our transport from Da Nang to Hué. While the distance is less than 100km by road the train takes some three and a half hours to make its way along the coast northwards to our destination.  What a feat of engineering: we cross gorges with water pouring down towards the beaches below, dive into tunnels as the track snakes along the lush green covered steep sided hills that seem to just rise up from the sea. The track turns so tightly I cannot see the front of the train most of the time.

En route to Hue

We also learn something new at the start of the train journey apart from the stirring music played for our departure, do not fill an esky (cooler box) with locally made rice wine and then try to load it onto the overhead rack without enough assistance because when it falls off, it does leak. Luckily not over us!  Use bottles next time.

Hué was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and home of the 19th-century Đại Nội Citadel, another UNESCO world heritage site and contains the Vietnamese Imperial Palace and another “forbidden city” along the lines of that in Beijing. Wonderful to wander through what was once the centre of power in Vietnam without huge crowds of tourists. While the Imperial Palace fell into disrepair after the abdication of the Emperor in August 1945 who vacated the palace, much of the interior was destroyed by fighting in 1947 and 1968.  Restoration been undertaken since UNESCO listing in 1993.

Main Đại Nội Citadel entrance, Hué
Part of the Imperial Palace Hué.
Detail of the Imperial Palace Hué
Foundations of buildings destroyed inside the Imperial Palace Hué

We also travelled into the countryside from Hué to visit the covered Thanh Toan bridge in Thuy Thanh Commune.  Made of wood with a tile roof it was built in the mid 1700’s and it is unusual in that it was funded by the wife of a local Mandarin for the benefit of the local people crossing the river. 

Wooden construction Thanh Toan Bridge
Good place for a rest, Thanh Toan Bridge

One aspect of Vietnam we enjoyed last time was the food.  We found then as now a wide variety of tasty options and that the price range between regular and  top quality is not as pronounced as in other countries. Do take advantage of the opportunity to dine well as we did.

Dinner comes with own extractor fan

To get from Huế and Hội An we book a car to take us via Lập An lagoon, with its mountain backdrop, Hai Van Pass, a spectacular road highlighted in one of the “Top Gear” episodes, Marble Mountain and then on to Mỹ Sơn an old 4th-14th century ruined Hindu temple complex. Quite a day of exploration with our car replaced by an 18 seater minibus for two of us. The tour company did offer us a 50% discount on the price, but we would have preferred the car for taking photos while driving.

Fishing boats in Lập An lagoon
Local women collecting shellfish by hand in Lập An lagoon
Looking north from the top of Hai Van pass
The two of us on Hai van pass
Perhaps we can remodel the entry to accommodate this statue, Marble Mountain.
one of over 70 temples at Mỹ Sơn
Part of Group D buildings, Mỹ Sơn temple complex
Countryside around Mỹ Sơn temple complex

Hội An once a thriving commercial and trading port has become a major tourist destination with offers of food, massage and bespoke tailoring called out as we walk around the town.  A little overwhelming for us who prefer the quiet life. A day and two nights would have been enough for us.

Lanterns on Bash Dang street, Hội An
Hoi An lanterns
Picturesque Hội An
Statue of Polish archaeologist and architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski who worked for 16 years on the restoration and development of Hội An and Hue
Anne overlooking old wharfs in Hội An

While sitting in Anne’s favourite coffee shop, the Hội An Roastery, in Hội An she remarks that the old city of Hội An reminded her of Khiva in Uzbekistan with merchant shops below and storage or living space above.  It changes my view of Hội An, for I realise that what I have perceived a tourist hot spot full of shops selling clothing and souvenirs is probably little different from 200 years ago when Hội An was a busy port with merchants selling their wares to buyers. The only differences are that the goods now come by road rather than sea and the customers are primarily tourists, both domestic and foreign, rather than regional buyers from central Vietnam. It puts Hội An in a completely different light, and although not somewhere I would revisit, I am glad we have been here.

Japanese bridge at night, Hội An
Closing up shop using wooden slats. Hội An

Our last port of call is Hanoi for an overnight stop en route to Thailand.  Anne finds a great restaurant called Essence and we recognise places we visited when here in 2003. A little trip down memory lane.

Hanoi Opera

All in all a great week, the people, the food and the scenery.  All I can say is “ cảm ơn,” or “thank you” to all those people whose paths we crossed and made our time enjoyable.

– Anthony