Sunday, June 15, 2014

Return to Vietnam

Eager to make the most of my vacation days, and a well-placed South Korean holiday on a Friday in early June, I took a 4-day trip to central Vietnam last week. I was also eager to rendezvous with my new Vietnamese friend Xuanhoa, who I met in Ho Chi Minh City in January and who visited me in South Korea in early May. I hadn't left Korea since my Hong Kong weekend trip 2 months earlier, and had gone several months without a business trip, so I was really eager to get my passport stamped again. And I was eager to recapture some of the bizarre magic from my January trip.

Imperial Citadel in Hue

Once again I had a pre-planned itinerary, this time courtesy of Ms. Xuanhoa ... I love traveling to new places and having local people show me around! Xuanhoa is a native of Ho Chi Minh City but had traveled to central Vietnam several times for work and pleasure, so she knew exactly where to take me and how to get around. It also helps that there are direct flights between Seoul Incheon and Da Nang's small airport.

On Thursday morning I left Seoul and arrived at Da Nang in early afternoon, 4.5 hours later. Xuanhoa was flying in from Ho Chi Minh and we met at the airport, then rushed to catch a bus which would take us to Hue, the former capital of the Nguyen dynasty. Quickly I was reacquainted with Vietnam's poor infrastructure. Though only about 100km away, the journey to Hue took us 3 hours on a simple two-lane highway. At least the lush green mountains to our west provided a beautiful background for much of our journey.

Old Town Hoi An

We checked into the nice hotel in Hue which Xuanhoa had arranged and were met there by Mr. Dat, Ms. Lam Huong's husband (see my January post). Mr. Dat and Ms. Lam Huong both grew up in Hue and Mr. Dat was there for some family commitments. He took us to a local restaurant where we ate spicy pork wraps and shrimp dumplings — very typical Vietnamese cuisine. Xuanhoa and I capped off the evening with a boat ride on the Perfume River, so named because of the pleasant smell the river once had, though today that has been eliminated through industrialization. The boat ride included performances of traditional Vietnamese songs and the lighting of paper candle lanterns which we dropped into the river ("to make a wish," Xuanhoa told me).

The next morning I woke up and took in the lovely city view  from the window of our hotel room. Hue is not a built-up city, has green mountains tucked behind it and clean air. Oh blue sky! How joyous! I missed pollution-free sunshine in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and also miss it in my day-to-day life in South Korea.

Loved Hoi An Old Town. Gets a big "thumbs up" from me!

Xuanhoa and I found a beef noodle restaurant for breakfast in Hue, then tried to beat the heat by hitting Hue's ancient attractions in the morning. We started at the Imperial Citadel, the palace of the old Nguyen kings. This palace was large and uncrowded, with nice groundskeeping in some areas, and several old red buildings where you could see how Vietnam's government was once conducted. The heat was beastly, though, and like most Vietnamese women Xuanhoa was afraid of the sun. We then headed to the Tomb of Tu Duc, a Vietnamese king in the mid-1800s and a poet-scholar. Tu Duc had the whole place built in accordance with feng shui principles — the gardens and lily-pad ponds convey a feeling of harmony.

Mr. Dat picked us up at our hotel and we headed back to Da Nang ... the drive was a little faster with our own personal driver. From there Xuanhoa and I took a 1-hour bus ride to Hoi An, an old merchant port. Xuanhoa picked a hotel in a strategic location near the Hoi An Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town is lovely! Great shops packed with Vietnamese clothes and goods, fine restaurants, and small streets with old buildings near the river. Being a World Heritage site has protected the Old Town from any new development, though it also brings masses of tourists in the evenings. Thankfully the Old Town is also protected from cars and Vietnam's many motorbikes. Unfortunately Xuanhoa did not introduce me to Hoi An's famous chicken rice, but we did try some tasty street food (and some less tasty cao lau).

The next morning Xuanhoa and I headed out early to head to the Cham Islands, located about 10 miles offshore from Hoi An. The islands featured tasty seafood and snorkeling above a bed of coral (though the snorkel equipment was decidedly low-grade). The whole tour lasted from about 8am to 3pm. Back in Hoi An we took our chances in the afternoon heat by renting a bicycle to drive about the Old Town. Pedaling the bicycle actually felt better than walking, and the afternoon heat became significantly more bearable while sitting in the shade eating an iced lotus bean dessert.

In late afternoon on Saturday we retreated to Da Nang and checked into a beach resort. Walking along the sea coast at sunset was very refreshing. For the evening, Xuanhoa and I trekked into the city for a "Date Night", though there is not much to see in Da Nang city except the picturesque bridges crossing the city's Han River (including one that looks like a dragon!).

On Sunday, Xuanhoa and I trekked outside of Da Nang to the Ba Na Hills overlooking the city. Ba Na was formerly a French resort and I could see why the French placed their resort up there – the temperature was refreshingly cool! Development has taken off at Ba Na since the introduction of a cable car a few years ago (a wonderful and long ride) and the place is being transformed into a European-style castle fantasyland for children. Such a strange attraction to have in Vietnam! Great views of the city and sea, and of course I loved the weather.

Cham Islands — relaxing and with excellent seafood!

For sunset, Xuanhoa and I returned to sea level and visited the Linh Ung Buddhist Temple, on a hilly peninsula with a wonderful view of the sea. As Xuanhoa and I had evening flights from Da Nang, we still had time to enjoy a dinner of boiled pork wrapped in rice rolls, dipped into fish sauce.

The overnight flight back to Seoul provided little time for sleep and I was a mess on Monday morning at work (particularly as I received food poisoning from the Sunday evening fish sauce), but my 2nd trip to Vietnam was as delightful as the first. Central Vietnam was far more tranquil and I enjoyed the history of the place. This region hasn't succumbed to the massive development seen in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh and provides a great breather for someone, like me, who lives in one of the crowded bustling metropolises of Asia.

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