The three Hs - Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi

Hoi An

After a rocking and rolling train trip through the Vietnamese night, we arrived just before dawn at Da Nang, where the driver from our hotel in Hoi An was waiting to give us a free transfer 35 km south to that ancient city. Hoi An is a must-see on almost every tourist's list of  places to visit in Vietnam and we had three days for a bit of rest and relaxation. The two main attractions of Hoi An are the World Heritage-listed old town, a series of narrow streets lined with 18th century houses built by Chinese merchants in the area, and the tailors, who seem to occupy every second shop and who promise to make you any piece of clothing to fit in 24 hours for rock-bottom prices.
The clothing didn't interest me, but this view was not shared by the fair Nello - thus our first morning in the town was not spent catching up on lost sleep, but measuring up (Nello at least) for new clothing. Well, I got to ride down the mountain, so fair is fair.


Quiet canal side street

Entry to the Cantonese Chinese Assembly Hall

The iconic Japanese covered bridge of Hoi An

Traffic-free old quarter of Hoi An - is this really Vietnam?

The lantern seller's stall

We then paid our entry fee to visit the historic old town. As I walked out, I passed an Indian mynah in a cage that would make a battery hen claustrophobic. The poor bird looked at me and chirped "rip-off, rip-off, rip-off". I won't say it was totally right as the funds supposedly go to maintaining this heritage site, but it is a curious ticket that allows you to walk through the old town (which you can do anyway for free) and visit only four of 15 possible historic buildings or museums (want to see the others - buy another ticket).

Temple of the Cai Dao Religion - buddhism meets christianity

The terra cotta rooves of the old quarter

I'm not sure if the ticket was deliberately designed to frustrate, but it did, as did the fact that most of those places visited were filled with people trying to sell you things (there are enough on the streets). At the risk of being labelled a cranky old man, I felt let down - Hoi An is one of those places that has been really built up and it wasn't living up to its hype. Perhaps the streets were too quiet, allowing my mind to wander to places it shouldn't ..... and to be fair, it was pleasant walking down the old streets free of cars and with only the odd scooter, past the yellow-ochre walls, mildewed with rising damp from many years of regular flooding, moss-covered tile rooves, old ladies in sampans waiting patiently on the canal to paddle a tourist about (only one dollar).....

Marble Mountains

Let sleeping monks lie

One place I thought my mind should wander to was Marble Mountain, an impressive natural feature just up the road. So, next afternoon on a more typical overcast day, we found ourselves getting off a local bus in front of these five marble outcrops rising out of the coastal plain. Climbing the steep marble stairs of Thuy Son (the Water Mountain and largest of the group), we explored the various caves, pagodas and shrines that have been built into or onto this site since the days of the Cham  Empire, several hundred years ago up to recent times when concrete is the material of choice.

It is an amazing place, and almost as amazing is the amount of carved marble (from tiny $1 buddhas to $5000 Chinese lions that must weigh a tonne) on sale at the many shops whose gauntlet you are obliged to run when leaving.

Fire and Earth Mountains viewed from Water Mountain

Six-tiered pagoda on Water Mountain

Entry to Tham Thai Tu Pagoda

Looking up to the ceiling of Huyen Khong Cave

Mandarin guarding the cave entrance

In the heart of Water Mountain

The exterior ....

... and interior of a cave in the marble rock

Entry to one of many cave shrines

Interior of a pagoda on Thuy Son

Standing buddha in a dimly lit cave

Seated buddha carved from white marble

The steps up the mountain - all marble of course!

Sadly the views from the top of Thuy Son down the famous white sand strip of China Beach confirmed our initial negative impressions - the sand may be great but the setting and ambiance is depressing - and with so many large resorts under construction, it can only get worse.

Encore Hoi An

I was wrong - I admit it! My judgement of Hoi An was too hasty. Tonight we walked through the old town, car-free and tranquil, lit by the lights of paper lanterns and wandered across the canal from Thu Bon River to eat at a restaurant on the opposite bank. The charisma of Hoi An had finally seduced me. However, if you want to see it come soon, for on the way back we were obliged to detour, as the incoming tidal surge pushed the river waters over the edge to cover much of the road lining it. Flooding is a regular problem for low-lying Hoi An and, with global warming, the future does not look rosy.

Now why can't we have government departments like this?


Quiet day on the canal

Bleak day at Cua Dai - the southern end of China Beach

Our last day in Hoi An was virtually a "day off". The odd heavy shower fell during the night and morning, which was largely taken up with having my trusty notebook computer repaired after Windows had crashed. It came back completely "vietnamised" - with strange versions of well know software reinstalled - but I was very greatful to Mr Minh for the quick fix and only USD 10 (they wouldn't even open the lid for that price back home).

In the afternoon, we took a couple of trusty single-geared local bikes for a slow pedal down to Cua Dai Beach, almost deserted in this bleak weather. Beyond the windswept white foam of the surf the grey sea blended imperceptibly into the grey sky. You'll have to come here in May-July if you want to see it at its best. It had been a quiet ride down, but school was just over as we returned joining a mad throng of bikes surging through the narrow streets of Hoi An. Life here has its moments.

Still night on the canal

For our last evening in Hoi An, we were drawn once again back into the quiet Old Quarter for dinner at a restaurant in one of the mouldy-walled yellow ochre buildings, sitting on a balcony that overlooked the Thu Bon River, as the soft rain dimpled its surface, filled with dancing reflections of multi-coloured lanterns on the far bank.

It was the one abiding memory that we would take with us.

The lights of Hoi An

Hue (the old imperial capital)

On the way to Hue, the day was very grey .... which was a pity as some of the scenery along the route between Hoi An and Hue is quite spectacular, particularly the Hai Van Pass, whose summits were shrouded in fog. Still, we could not have expected otherwise in this season of post-typhoon cloud and drizzle that characterises the central coast of Vietnam.

Arriving in the old imperial city, we checked in to our hotel and immediately headed off to citadel, the 10km long walls built in 1804 to protect the capital of the Nguyen emperors.

We walked along the shore of a thousand dragon boats (each one with a tout wanting your business), crossed the Perfume River by bridge and entered the citadel walls, finally escaping from two very persistent cyclo drivers, who followed us while trying to convince us that we didn't need to walk after four hours on a bus (Hue has a justifiable reputation as home of the most persistent hawkers in Vietnam - they appear to have no concept of the words, no, non, nein or even không - the only escape phrase is "maybe later").

The shore of a thousand dragon boats lining the Perfume River

Gateway to the walled citadel of Hue

The flag tower of the citadel

Citadel wall and moat

At last we reached the Ngo Mon Gate, where we crossed the moat and passed through the iconic stone gate to enter the inner sanctum of the Imperial Enclosure; a walled city within a walled city and a tranquil sanctuary from the traffic noise and tourist-hassling that goes on outside.

Sadly, this was not always the case and the Imperial Enclosure was badly damaged during heavy fighting in the Vietnam War. Now, World Heritage listed, much has been restored while other parts stand (or lie) as a poignant reminder of Hue's recent history. We greatly enjoyed our roam through the palaces, residences and temples of imperial Hue, before once again braving the real world outside the citadel walls to return to our hotel.

Ngo Mon Gate (entrance to the Imperial Enclosure)

Dien Tho Residence (home of the dowager empress)

The urns of the Nguyen dynasty emperors

In the Hall of the Mandarins

Gateway to the Truong San residence

Colonade of the reception hall

Interior of the Phung tien Temple
The tombs of the emperors


The steps to Hoa Khiem Temple at Tu Duc's tomb

Mandarins lining the entry to the tomb

Part of the lake built by Tu Duc

The next morning, the sky was not only grey it was raining - gently but steadily. We abandoned our idea of getting a couple of motor scooter riders to take us to Hue's other cultural landmark, the tombs of the Nguyen emperors, and hired a car instead.

Tu Duc's tomb lies behind these walls

There are six tombs upstream of Hue in the vicinity of the Perfume River, each chosen by an emperor for his burial site and generally comprising large walled compounds with several temples, pavillions, monuments, water features and, of course, tombs. We chose to visit two, the tomb of Tu Duc (built 1864-67) and that of Minh Mang (built 1841-43).

The tomb of Tu Duc was set in large gardens around a man-made lake and canal that followed the natural contours of the landscape.

Stone stele describing the deeds of Tu Duc

The gardens of Tu Duc

Main entry to the tomb area

Temple interior

The stele pavilion, housing a stone that recalls
the deeds of Minh Mang

The tomb of Minh Mang, built slightly earlier, had a much more formal symmetry that led up to his burial site on a small hill. Both had an air of serenity and harmony with their natural surroundings, particularly in the misty ambiance of a wet Hue day. Well worth a visit, but at the end we were feeling a little "cultured-out".

The gardens of Minh Mang's tomb

Trung Minh Ho (The Lake of Impeccable Clarity)

Minh Lao Pavilion

Courtyard of the Minh Lao Pavilion

The symmetry of Cao Trung Dao Bridge

Entry to the Sung An Temple

Then it was back to the city and off to the train station for yet another overnight ride on the Reunification Express. This time we paid a bit more to travel by private carriage, but apart from a sit toilet instead of a squat one and a give away toothbrush and comb, there was little difference. The dining car so clearly pictured on the brochure was non-existent. Fortunately, the train stopped for 15 minutes at one station, so we could leap off and buy a couple of instant noodle dishes and some fruit for our dinner. We did not go to bed hungry, and were soon asleep, lulled by the gently rocking clicketyclack of the rails and the distant chirp of a knowing mynah bird "rip-off, rip-off, rip-off".


It was a relief in the pre-dawn light at Hanoi train station to see our hotel pickup waiting for us outside the carriage. Soon we were in a soft hotel bed near the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, catching up on missed sleep. Today was a business day; visiting a couple of tour operators to organise our time in the north. Hanoi would be our base and, from here, we planned to head in different directions for different trekking and boating activities.

The afternoon was spent avoiding the conical hatted fruit vendors (you can only eat so much fresh pineapple no matter how delicious it is), and doing a bit of shopping for supplies in the Old Quarter, an incredible hive of micro-commerce, where street names reflect the type of merchants in them; thus we passed silk street, leather street, rice street, cheap watch street and stuffed toy street, but where the heck was toothpaste street?

Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) in Hoan Kiem Lake

We ended the day sitting on a balcony, watching the amazing manoeuvres of scooters, cars, pedestrians and bicycles and the odd steam-roller (I kid you not and I know which vehicle I would choose) negotiating an uncontrolled 5-way intersection. Heady stuff! - Hanoi traffic makes Saigon look meek - they are faster, less predictable and lack that telepathic sense that seems to unite the scooter riders of Saigon into one single-minded swarm.

The Old East Gate of Hanoi

A market street in the Old Quarter

Hanoi Opera House (a touch of French colonial architecture)

On our return from the Pu Luong trek, we took the time to pay our respects to Uncle Ho. Revered by the Vietnamese, the enbalmed body of Ho Chi Minh lies in state in a massive granite mausoleum, where a constant stream of people file past his glass-walled resting place. Macabre for some, emotional for others - it is not for us to judge - his body and the nearby house where he led his simple and principled life are an important symbol for the Vietnamese and their ultimate achievement of one unified and independent nation.

The Presidential Palace (formerly the French Governor's House)

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Uncle Ho's house

The One Pillar Pagoda

We also visited Van Mieu - Quac Tu Giam (the Temple of Literature), founded in the 11th century as a centre for Confucian learning and one of earliest universities of the world. Here we finally found out the symbolism of the bronze statue that stands next to our fireplace of a crane standing on a tortoise and holding a pearl in its beak. I'll never look at it in the same way again!

In the Courtyard of the Sage

Statues of early Vietnamese kings

Entry to the Temple of Literature

Red lacquered colonade in Thai hoc Courtyard

One of 82 stone stelae of the doctors' laureates

Khue Van Pavilion

Christmas Eve finally caught up with us. When we first arrived we were surprised to see all the decorations and preparations for Christmas - it promised to be interesting to see just how an officially atheist (?) predominantly buddhist country would celebrate one of the two great events of Christianity. It started innocuously; we went to a Church in Hanoi where a choir gave beautiful renditions of well-known Christmas carols (lyrics in Vietnamese naturally). For some, the words went up on the big screen, so we joined in, undoubtedly massacring the Vietnamese language in joyful song, but it's the thought that counts! We left the church, walked back to Hoan Kiem Lake, still wondering what the great majority might do this night and walked into the greatest scenes of celebratory chaos that I have witnessed.

The entire circuit of roads around the lake was chock-a-block with scooters, horns honking, people shouting and chanting, a sea of yellow-starred red national flags waving from the bikes, balloons, flashing lights, music and sheer unbridled joy. Not only was it Christmas, but Vietnam had just defeated Thailand for the first time in 10 years in the ASEAN Football cup final - it was an outpouring of national pride. The entire road system around the lake quickly became a gridlock, so the scooters took to the footpaths and gardens already crammed with pedestrians. It took us an hour to get back to the hotel, where the owners were waiting with a case of Hanoi beer, Christmas hats and nibbles to bring good cheer to all returning guests. It had started quietly, but Christmas 2008 in Hanoi will certainly be one of our more memorable.

Gridlock around Hoan Kiem Lake ...

.... as the crowd celebrates Vietnam's win in the ASEAN football cup

Two days later we were back in town from Cuc Phuong - just for one night, but it was a chance to see the reknowned water puppet theatre, perpetuating a thousand year-old art form. From the first haunting melody of the one-stringed Dan Bau, to the skilful, comic, energetic yet graceful displays of puppetry, it was fantastic. Don't come to Hanoi without seeing this, but be prepared to fold your legs up around your ears in theatre seats not designed for long-legged westerners.

A dragon made completely of flowers at
the Hanoi Flower Festival

The Huc (Rising Sun) Bridge on hoan Kiem Lake

The last memory of Hanoi was arriving back from Sa Pa in the early morning and walking back to our hotel. Hanoi was just waking, the Old Quarter streets were strangely quiet and empty, but around Hoan Kiem Lake, the citizens of this city were out doing ther morning exercise, jogging walking or playing badminton on the footpaths, while small groups carried out gracefully synchronised tai chi exercises to the sounds of Chinese music. It was hard to believe that in just an hour or two this city would once again return to the horn-blaring noisy chaos of scooters, cars and people that is Hanoi by day.

It was definitely time to leave, the vibrant chaos of Hanoi was growing on us.

Walking around Hanoi

After spending 7 days on and off in Hanoi between various trips, we started to feel comfortable as pedestrians and can now pass on some useful definitions to aid the new arrivee. These particularly apply to the Old Quarter.

Traffic: A euphemism for the daily danse macabre that takes place between motor scooters, cars and pedestrians on the streets of Hanoi.

Footpath: a narrow paved strip between road and building used for small restaurants, shop displays, street vendors and, primarily, as a place to park scooters. It is also a useful short cut for scooters when the roads are busy. Occasionally, pedestrians walk on the footpaths, but this can be quite dangerous - it is better to use the road.

One way street: a street where 90% of the traffic is going in the same direction.

Two-way street: a street where 50% of the traffic is going in each direction, occasionally on the opposite sides of the road.

Traffic lights: Hanoi has only red and green lights with a 30 second timer counting down the period. A red light means that vehicles can continue to cross the intersection until the counter reaches 20, even though the cross traffic is already moving. It also means that they can turn right at any time merging seamlessly into the cross traffic and any pedestrians who thought that they could safely cross on a green light.

The safest form of transport in Hanoi

Cyclos: A form of transport with a passenger seat in front of a bicycle. Cyclo riders constantly try to get foreign tourists to sit in this seat to serve as human airbags in the event of a collision.

Horns: Horns are only used when passing another scooter or car, crossing an intersection, greeting a friend or approaching pedestrians on the road. Frivolous use of the horn is strongly discouraged.

Indicators: Hanoi scooter drivers use their indicators to show that they are about to merge directly into the oncoming stream of traffic to get to wherever they wish (usually a prime parking spot on the footpath), Indicators are not used for trivial changes in direction such as suddenly turning right or left, which are basic survival skills.

Hanoi slow step: The only technique to cross a road in Hanoi. Wait for an appropriate break in the traffic (e.g. when one moving scooter is at least 1m behind another), then step out slowly, angled slightly upstream into the approaching swarm of scooters and cars. Make sure that your partner is on the up-traffic side, walk slowly but surely, never stopping or making eye contact - the drivers will veer ever so slightly around you and before you know it you will be on the other side of the road wondering how you did it. Nine times out of 10, this technique will get you safely across the road. Never cross the same road more than nine times.