Between the major cities of Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south lies a bunch of ancient Vietnamese towns and cities with an influence of cultures and a centre-point for one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war.
My trip northwards started with the ancient town of Hoi An – a UNESCO world heritage site. The town itself is a small and easily accessible on bike or foot (no motorised vehicles inside the main town), and the highlights of the little town are in a cluster, a few metres apart from each other. Hoi An was the base of spice traders in ancient Vietnam, and the settlements included people from Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands and India. By night, the town transforms into this magical place lit by lanterns; there’s restaurants at every step, but the whole town makes you feel like you’re back in the 15th century (albeit one where people have iPhones and selfie sticks).
Hoi An is famous for its Cau Lau noodles – a dish of noodles and pork only available in Hoi An. The noodles are delicious, as is the case with most Asian food, but nothing to revere in my opinion.
I also had my first experience with bia hoi in Hoi An – a local draft beer brewed fresh daily and sold in bottles measuring around 700 ml for around 15 cents! Like the rest of Asia, where there is cheap alcohol, there will be 19 year old kids wanting to get shit-faced; and Hoi An, in spite of its culture, is no exception. But the bars are less than a handful, which makes them easy to avoid.
The highlight of any trip to Central Vietnam is ride a bike through the Hai Van pass – rated by Top Gear as one of the top 10 scenic rides in the world – as every tourist shop will also point out to you. You can rent a bike, strap on your haversack to it, and make this beautiful journey on your own, or you can have an ‘Easy Rider’ do the riding while you sit at the back of his bike taking in the views. It had been raining on and off during my time there, and even though I really wanted to ride through the mountains myself, getting an Easy Rider seemed like as safer option.
My first stop was the Marble Mountains of Da Nang: five marble mountains representing the 5 elements. The mountains have Buddhist sanctuaries all over, and only the mountain representing water is open to tourists to ascend. The view from the top – breathtaking (mainly because you’ll be breathless after the ascend).
The next stop was the Hai Van pass…
Now, there are times when pictures and videos cannot do justice to an experience, and riding through the Hai Van pass is one of those things. There’s wind in your hair, the temperature is just right, and riding through the pass is a feast for the eyes. I was glad I chose to get an Easy Rider because it started raining while we were reaching the top of the mountain, and you’re literally riding through the clouds with a very short visibility range. The rain clouds also made it pointless for me to stop at the top of the pass and climb up to the very tip for the viewpoint – I wouldn’t be able to see more than a metre ahead of me, but well…
After we got off the pass, my Easy Rider took me to a waterfall where ‘only the locals go’. Everybody knows that’s tourist talk for ‘it’s where all the tourists and maybe some locals go,’ but I was in for a surprise. The waterfall was actually a place where only locals go, and I was the only non-Vietnamese person there besides an older white man who had married a local.
The Vietnamese were fascinated by my non-white appearance, and the kids were mesmerised by my GoPro. They passed it around and looked at the exact same view in front of their eyes through the screen on the GoPro like it was magic. An old man swam up to me with his friend who spoke some English. They asked me what I did, and were very curious to know what I thought about Vietnamese women. I found out why a few minutes later when the non-English speaking guy offered my his daughter’s hand in marriage…
While I was being propositioned, my Easy Rider arranged for a simple, but delicious lunch by the waterfall – spicy grilled fish, steamed rice, cabbage and soy sauce – and a lot of Huda beers (a beer company from Hue). He got us 6 cans, but only had 1 because he was riding, which left me with 5 beers to guzzle.
The journey ended in the imperial city of Hue, where I said goodbye to my Easy Rider who would now make the scenic ride back to Hoi An by himself… what an amazing job to have.
Hue was the capital of one of the Vietnamese dynasties a few hundred years ago, and is host to what is called the Imperial City of Hue: a walled palace that was the seat of the king.
Being at the border of what was Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam, Hue was the place where the bloody Battle of Hue took place. One of the longest and bloodiest battles between the Americans and the Vietcong. This also means a lot of the imperial city has been destroyed, but what remains is still pretty amazing.
I’ll spare you the details since Wikipedia has all the information you need about the battle; so here are some pictures of the Imperial City.