Posted by: Richard Marshall | October 6, 2011

Hoi An and Hue

Gregor and Rich

As I prepare to head off to Singapore and Malaysia in a couple of weeks I realise it’s about time I wrote up my last trip in July. After a long period of anticipation, my friend Gregor finally strolled out of Tan Son Nhat airport ready for a two-week trip to central Vietnam. We spent the first afternoon catching up and drinking beer with a fine view of the city from the roof of the Caravelle hotel and wrapped up the evening with more beer and deep-fried soft-shelled crabs at a restaurant near my apartment. Despite a mild hangover we dutifully visited the sights in District One the next day, including heading up to the newly opened viewing deck of HCM City’s tallest building, which was very impressive. Gregor managed to pick up a couple of Rolexes at the local market and got pretty good at snapping photos off the back of a moving motorbike. Despite being a bit weary we managed to have a very long night, visiting some of my usual haunts as well as some…less familiar…establishments. The result was a truly appalling hangover for our trip to District Five the next day. District 5 is a bit intense at the best of times, but in baking heat and in our condition we struggled round a few Chinese pagodas and Binh Tay market with some difficulty! We also had to bribe a cop for driving without a licence (I have subsequently finally got my Vietnamese licence) so it was a bit of a tough day…

Bitexo tower

The next day we took off for Da Nang on the central coast, new territory for us both. I liked the look of Da Nang but our destination was the small town of Hoi An a few kilometres away. Hoi An is an old trading port that somehow avoided the devastation most of Vietnam’s other towns have experienced one way or another and lives on as a tourist hot spot. It really is very beautiful and although the tourist presence can be a bit overwhelming at least that is an incentive to preserve the town’s wonderful architecture. It really is a charming town and we were fortunate to find a very comfortable hotel with a view over some rice paddies, a real relief to someone as starved of green spaces as me. Hoi An also had some of the best food I’ve had in Vietnam. We found a friendly restaurant that we had to visit again and again. As well as local specialities such as Cao Lau – a pork and noodle dish – and rice paper delicacies called white roses the place fantastic spring rolls. The family who ran the place were also very charming and happy to let me practise my still pretty poor Vietnamese which no doubt requires some patience. We spent some time wandering the narrow streets of the town as well as taking a trip to the beach nearby. Gregor also got some pretty sharp suits made that I hope have been spotted on the streets of Cape Town…

Japanese bridge

Hoi An boats

Chinese Pagoda

Our plan was to hire bikes and drive the 120km or so to Hue. We hired bikes from a fairly eccentric German – after an unsuccessful experiment with Chinese motorcycles we settled on easy-to-drive Yamahas, which performed excellently. The great attraction of the trip was going over the Hai Van pass. The pass was indeed spectacular, especially on our return journey when the sun was shining brightly. On one side are the Truong Son mountains, some of which are happily protected by the Bach Ma National Park, and on the other a great, deep-blue expanse of the South China Sea. The road winds back and forth and needed a fair bit of concentration!

Hai Van Pass

My first impression of Hue was that it was shabbier and more down-at-heel than I expected, even taking into account its disastrous twentieth-century history. One of the few places the VLF managed to hang on to for any length of time during the Tet offensive in 1968, the once gorgeous Imperial capital was utterly devastated by the Americans, yet another horrendous crime. But after a day or so the place started to grow on me. For one thing, the setting on the Perfume River with the mountains in the background really is enchanting. Also, the Imperial City is slowly being restored and has some wonderful buildings and gardens. Indeed, the restoration projects are ultimately so ambitious that one feels they should leave some of the ruins as a poignant war memorial.

Gate to the Imperial City

Throne Room at Hue

Our second day we visited some of the pagodas and imperial tombs in the vicinity. The Nguyens were the last dynasty to rule Vietnam, ending up as little better than French puppets. Although it was fun driving around the countryside the heat was unbelievable, so we only visited two of the tombs – Tu Duc, who was the longest-reigning emperor, and one of his predecessors Ming Mang, who was the last of the Nguyen emperors to really exercise independent power. The tombs were also summer palaces, built by the emperors during their lifetimes, and were large areas set in attractive parklands and gardens. Although not badly damaged during the wars, they were neglected after 1975 as monuments to a corrupt feudal past, but by now are seen as precious national treasures and are being frantically preserved.

Tu Duc’s tomb

Central Vietnam

We drove back to Hoi An and rested for a day before heading back to HCMC. By the time we got there we were burnt, tired and covered in odd scratches and bruises! The last day we took a day trip to the Mekong Delta just to have a look at the river. I hadn’t really liked it two years ago but after some heavy rain the paddies were emerald-green and the new highway made the journey much less exasperating.  It was a good ending to a really fantastic trip. Central Vietnam has some really very special places, and of course being able to experience that with an old friend meant that the trip was probably the best I’ve done so far in Asia – so thanks Gregor and get over here again sometime!!! There’s still hundreds of miles of coast road to go:)

Gregor’s a great photographer so check out his blog and his photostream...


  1. Great summary of an epic trip Rich! What an amazing trip, I cannot wait to come visit again, soon!!!

  2. Sounds awesomo Rich! Dan is shouting at me to get off his computer, and tempting me with toffees! but i just wanted to say this looks beautiful! And great photos too! I will write soon, love t xoxo

  3. just want to let you know it’s just enjoyable to read your witty writings again. (:

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