This continues our ongoing TR from our 9 weeks in SEAsia.
The café – across from a broad street from the train station in Lao Cai - was packed with westerners waiting for the train. Mee insisted on staying with us while we waited. She talked about her life…she was of Hmong origin, the youngest of five siblings. While she worked for Tonkin Travel, her father and all of her siblings were farmers. She was 21, unmarried and lived with her parents. As she talked, I had a Coca-Cola and YT had some fried rice. After a great deal of conversation – and Mee bouncing over to the café computer to check her email – we paid and left, rolling our suitcases back to the train station. There was a huge crowd, mixed Vietnamese and Western, waiting around the closed doors for the Livitrans overnight. Mee proved masterful at scooting through to the front of the crowd with YT’s suitcase. I did my best to follow her. Eventually, the signal was given, the doors opened and the crowd swelled forward. We rolled down the platform to Car Eight. I heaved myself and my suitcase aboard, we found our cabin and said goodbye to Mee.
The cabin was small – the per person square footage approximated that of the French prison cells in Son La. (Fortunately, we’d rented all four berths in the cabin.) The cabin – and the entire train – had a somewhat down at the heels feeling. I heaved our suitcases onto the upper bunks, allowing a little floor space. The bunks were less than two meters in length – stretched out, my head touched one end and my feet the other. The mattress was thin and hard. We left the cabin door open initially and had a moment of schadenfreude as two westerners attempted to maneuver two absurdly large rolling suitcases sideways down the aisle outside the cabin. We half-closed, then closed, the door as we seemed to have become an object of curiosity to every passing Vietnamese person. Eventually, the train lurched into motion with a chorus of shrieking and grinding metal. This sound was to accompany us all the way to Hanoi. Shortly thereafter, we donned blindfolds, turned out the cabin lights and attempted to sleep, fully dressed, on the bunks.
YT Comment – The bathrooms on the train were disgusting. Given how clean much of Vietnam had been, this came as a bit of a surprise and made any trips there less than pleasant.
We arrived in Hanoi around 5:00 a.m. and were picked up by our Tonkin Tours driver for the drive to the airport. Our flight to Danang left and arrived more or less on time and we were again picked up by a Tonkin Travel driver – Huy – for the final leg to Hoi An. He dropped us off at our hotel, the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort, at around ten thirty. We’d been dreading our travel from Sapa to Hoi An, but Tonkin Travel pulled it off without a hitch.
Our room at the Vinh Hung Riverside Resort turned out to be really nice – very large, well lit, a comfortable king-size bed, modern bathroom and a great river view. After we’d checked in, we’d dropped off our luggage in our room and walked to nearby old town Hoi An. The old quarter of Hoi An was a delight. The buildings were a beautiful architectural confluence of Asian and French style. Shops sold handcrafted lanterns, silks, art and handicrafts. There were also numerous tailor shops. We stopped for lunch at the Morning Glory restaurant in the old quarter and had a delicious banh xeo crepe and wonderful “white rose” dumplings. After lunch, we returned tour room for a nap. We were exhausted, having slept little on the noisy, lurching Sapa to Hanoi train.
We went out again in the evening. There were lanterns everywhere. People were floating candles in the Thu Bon River that separated the old quarter and our lodgings on An Hoi Island. YT stopped at a tailor’s, thumbed through the fabrics, picked out a silk fabric and ordered a pair of slacks fit to her measurements for a cost of about U$D14. We were to return the next day for a fitting. We sought out the Secret Garden Restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, they were fully booked for dinner; we made reservations for the following evening and returned to Morning Glory for more banh xeo. It was crowded, but they eventually found a table for us. We shared it with two friendly Englishwomen who were also touring Vietnam. They’d been to the USA once, for a tour of Civil Rights sites in the American South and had been to places in Mississippi and Alabama that we’d never been to (or ever thought of going to). They seemed singularly unimpressed with my one bit of trivia about Montgomery, Alabama – that it’s the burial place of pioneering Country singer/songwriter Hank Williams. YT and I have never been to the UK together and asked them when the best time to go for good weather was. Their laughing answer: never.
The next day, we had some more wanderings. While YT had a foot massage & pedicure I went to the neighborhood on the far side of the Japanese Bridge. It had a lot of nice arty stores: A bookstore, a nice t-shirt shop and numerous galleries. After YT’s massage/pedicure, we visited an old merchant house, a ceramic museum, the old Japanese bridge and glanced into a couple of Chinese Assembly Halls. We walked the length of town to go the cloth market. I stopped on the way for an impromptu hair cut that included a neck massage (3U$D); the results were great, despite my ending up with the shortest hair I’ve probably had in forty plus years. At the cloth market, we bought some silk fabric and engaged a lady to make us a pair of pillow covers, using an existing pillow cover we’d brought as a template for size. YT returned to her tailor shop for a refitting and liked the results so much she ordered a second pair of slacks. (They were a little less than 14U$D for the second pair.) We had a riverside lunch at Brothers Café, set amid some beautiful gardens and restored houses. We had yet another banh xeo and a pomelo salad - both were wonderful, albeit much more expensive than at Morning Glory. After lunch, contacted the Tonkin driver and arranged for a ride to My Son the next day.
I think the time right after lunch hour in Hoi An shows the old quarter at its best. The stores close up for a siesta, the traffic thins, the pedestrian street is empty. The constant solicitation from the tailor shops disappears. It’s quiet. That, in combination with the old houses and fading paint, creates an atmosphere that speaks of another era. Once, we walked down the pedestrian street hearing nothing other than a scratchy old tango record being played on the upper floor of one of the houses. Just wonderful.
That evening, we picked up our newly-made pillows, revisited YT’s tailor shop and went to the Secret Garden for dinner. This restaurant is well-named – it’s accessible only by alleyways off the larger streets. They lead to a walled garden courtyard reminiscent of the grounds of a Mexican hacienda. The food was fabulous. We had sour beef, grilled eggplant and grilled calamari. There was guitarist playing, whose repertoire varied between Spanish classical guitar, Beatles covers and “Hotel California.” We went to nearby Tam Tam Café for French desserts – passion fruit mousse and a lemon tart.
The next morning, the arranged car and driver took us to My Son. (We’d wanted to go early to avoid the mid-day heat.) My Son was one of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War. Once an intact temple complex, it had been used as a staging area by the Viet Cong and had been bombed into ruins by American forces in the subsequent fighting. Only the Temple B group was reasonably intact; much of everything else was vegetation-covered mounds of rubble. Unlike the Chinese–influenced antiquities we’d seen earlier in Northern Vietnam, My Son’s architecture was Cham- and Indian-influenced, not unlike the architecture at Angkor Wat. Many of the surviving sculptures had been removed from My Son and taken to the Cham Museum in Danang. We were back at the hotel by early afternoon and, for lunch, made a fruit salad of mangos, bananas and oranges.
Later that evening, we picked up YT’s tailor-made slacks and wandered some more. We paused outside the House of Traditional Music to listen to a trio play excellent Vietnamese traditional music. The instrumentation – if not the melodies - sounded a little like bluegrass…their classical Vietnamese instruments sounded much like a violin, a mandolin and a dobro. Oddly, when we looked inside the House of Traditional Music, we found it totally empty except for a couple of parked motos. Later, we had a sunset dinner at Sakura; the food was Vietnamese despite the Japanese name. This is a second-story restaurant with a good view of the Thu Bon river and the bridge to An Hoi Island. Unfortunately the food – we had white rose dumplings, mango salad with seafood, shrimp “ravioli,” and stir fried vegetables – was not nearly as good as the view. After dinner, we went to the Tam Tam Café for passion fruit mousse and cointreau, then moved on to the Cargo Club for vanilla, lemongrass and cinnamon ice cream with mango sauce. Then we headed back to our room to pack for the next day’s departure. Out of every place that we had visited, or were to visit, in Vietnam, Hoi An was my hands-down favorite. I’ll always remember Hoi An as lucky chicken charms, a melancholy tango on a deserted lunchtime street and nighttime reflections of glowing paper lanterns in the river.
YT Note – While enjoying Hoi An, it was not my favorite place in Vietnam. I thought it an adorable, but. in many ways, a made for tourism, town.
We left the next morning by car for Hue. On the way we stopped at the very empty Marble Mountain – we took the elevator up and walked down. There’s a great view from the top and a nice Chinese-style temple complex by the stairs on the way down. We drove through Danang – parts by the ocean seemed to be one huge construction site, with wide streets and apartment complexes that, judging by the English signage, appear to be marketed to returning American veterans of the Vietnam War. There were names like Surf City, Sunset Villas and the Tides. It looked a lot like southern Florida. We stopped at the legendarily beautiful China Beach and then went through the Cham Museum. The Cham Museum is small and wonderful, a two story building filled with Cham statuary. (The Cham were an Indian-influenced civilization that had originally settled in Central and Southern Vietnam fifteen hundred or more years ago and had been displaced over time by the Chinese-influenced Vietnamese civilization to the north.) I much prefer Indian art to Chinese art that we saw everywhere in Vietnam, so I found the museum to be nothing short of delightful. After leaving Danang, we passed through beautiful, foggy mountains separating Danang from Hue to the north. The driver stopped near Hai Van pass and we looked at an old Chinese-style gate and some bunkers from the Vietnam War era before moving on.
We arrived at our hotel (the Celadon Palace) in Hue around 2:00 p.m. It was a large multiple-story modern hotel. Our room looked out over the city. The one flaw was that our thermostat appeared to be broken, stuck at a constant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. We were to call the desk five times over the course of two days – the end result was a thermostat permanently locked at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That first afternoon, we took a cab to La Residence, a luxurious hotel/restaurant complex in a kind of Deco Indochine style. The fixtures and furnishings look like they had been transported straight out of the 1930s. We had an early dinner at Le Parfum, the La Residence restaurant…an appetizer platter, some fabulous rice noodles sautéed with turmeric and crab meat, and delicious shrimp and broccoli with lemongrass and tamarind sauce.
The next day thanks to the recommendations by sf7307 we took the Hue Riders tour, a guided tour on the back of motorcycles of sights in Hue and the nearby countryside. We’d booked this directly with Hue Riders on line at http://www.hueriders.com. Hue Riders does both one-day and multiple day tours; we’d opted for the one-day “Best of Hue” tour. Our drivers/guides were Mr. Quy and Mr. Dung. (Despite both being billed as English-speaking, only Mr. Quy, YT’s driver, spoke comprehensible English – but one English speaker was all we needed.) They showed up promptly after breakfast and off we went! It had been years since either of us had been on motorcycles, but both of us adapted instantly. We started by going to a Buddhist monastery (the Tu Hieu Temple, I think) and then to a scenic Perfume River overlook that had the remains of old French and American bunkers. Then we went to the lush green countryside to visit the tombs of Vietnamese Emperor Tu Doc (fascinating) and the imposing tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh with a courtyard full of mandarin statues that looked like a giant chessboard. Then back towards town. We hit the beautiful Thien Mu Pagoda, then had lunch next door to the Hue Riders office at the Phuong Nam restaurant/café…rice pancakes with shrimp and bun bo Hue, a delicious beef noodle dish. We had mango smoothies for dessert. Then back on the road to the Hue Citadel. The Hue Citadel is simply immense. Much of it is still in the process of restoration. Some of the fiercest fighting of the American War had occurred here in Tet Offensive in February/March 1968 and the Citadel had suffered extensive damage. After the Citadel, we again left the city for the countryside. We stopped and briefly visited Mr. Cuy’s spacious house, which he and a friend had built by themselves, funding the construction via his Hue Riders job. Lastly, we visited a beautiful covered bridge out in a country village. We were returned to the hotel around 4:30 and I tipped both drivers. This had been a great adventure, informative and fun. We had been lucky to have nice weather if a bit hot in the early afternoon. I would highly recommend Hue Riders and any of their tours.
Much later that evening we sought out the Mandarin Café, about five or six long blocks from our hotel. We had grilled pork with coconut, stir-fried “morning glories,” sweet and sour shrimp with tomatoes, onions peppers and pineapple, and steamed spring rolls. All except the morning glory dish were very good. We talked at length to Mr. Cu, the owner, and he gave us directions and a map to the Hue’s garden houses.
The next morning, after sleeping in and hitting the world’s largest breakfast buffet, we took a cab to garden house “Nhanh Tung Vuon An Hiem.” It was a roundabout route to our destination. The cab driver took us out Le Duan street along the Perfume River. (The street probably changed names several times as we drove away from Hue.) He then turned down a one-way road next to a canal, then turned crossed the canal to head back on a one way road on the other side to arrive at a garden house. It was perfectly executed, but, unfortunately, we had arrived at the wrong garden house. This one had been converted into a restaurant. Furthermore, the staff advised us, it certainly wasn’t open at 9:30 in the morning. Oops. We piled back into the cab, drove back to the road by the river and drove a little further to arrive at the garden house we sought. We entered the grounds and there was a large square pool in front of a house. No one seemed to be around and I took a few photographs. Then the owner, an older woman, came out to greet us and give us a tour. The house was a “mandarin house,” spacious, beautiful and constructed almost a hundred years ago without nails. The woman was the granddaughter of the original owners. She showed us around and was particularly proud of a plaque that had indicated her grandmother’s membership in the Viet Minh, the organization that had led the fight against French colonialism. The grounds were planted with various tropical and semi-tropical plants, most of which we were unfamiliar with. I had my first encounter with a cinnamon tree. I crumpled some leaves between my fingers and smelled that faint familiar fragrance.
We exited the garden house to find the taxi that had taken us there parked under a nearby tree. We cabbed back into Hue city, onto a side street off Hung Vuong, a major street. YT had a hair appointment at a stylist’s shop that we had noticed in our previous wanderings. I went to the nearby Phuong Nam café for a mango pineapple smoothie. I returned to the stylist after an hour to find the hair appointment still a work in progress. Afterwards, we walked to a spa for foot massages, but cancelled our plans due to the unpleasant heat and humidity and a mosquito sighting. We had a small lunch at Phuong Nam Café and then returned to our hotel room. We spent the afternoon in our room reading and on the Internet. It was too hot – about 95 degrees Fahrenheit - to go out.
That evening, our last in Hue, we went to a restaurant, Hang Me Me, that had been extensively written up and lauded on Trip Advisor. Hang Me Me serves only six dishes, all based on variations of glutinous rice. We ordered five, all small plates. I liked four of the five. YT disliked all five due to the gelatinous texture, essentially leaving me to eat a dinner for two – fortunately, they were very small plates. After our – or, more accurately, my – dinner, we went down the road to our old stand-by Phuong Nam for steamed spring rolls. We both agreed: delicious.
We walked around some and then, on a lark, took two cyclos – think bicycle-driven rickshaws – back to the hotel, perhaps half a kilometer away. Always negotiate in advance. The drivers had repeatedly ignored my questions regarding price and tried to charge me 100,000 dong apiece (about $10U$D total) on our arrival. I managed to get the price down to 90,000 dong total – still high for Vietnam - by claiming that that was all the money I had on me.
The next morning, at the breakfast buffet, I startled the waitress by adding sugar to my bun bo Hue. I was only half awake. She must have thought that Americans have truly peculiar culinary tastes until I explained that the sugar had been intended for the coffee, not the noodle soup. We returned to our room, packed and then read until a little before 11:00 and then took our luggage down to the lobby for our ride to the airport and our 1:00 p.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City (almost universally referred to as “Saigon” in Vietnam). The Hue airport was miniature – all of one gate. Our plane shook so much on take-off that I thought for a moment it would fall apart mid-air. Then it turned over the ocean and we were on our way south.
You may read the previous portion of the TR here