Backpackers, trekkers, back to nature adventurers and hardcore travel masochists should look away now … Mr H and I are somewhat namby-pamby, limp-wristed travellers in comparison to those that wish to immerse themselves in disease, danger or disaster and disgusting dunnys – we like to err on the cautious side. Happy to enjoy new encounters be they food, sensory, cultural or experiential we also like to feel safe and welcome and know that we are not going to be faced with wildlife in the loos or be murdered in our beds. Holidays are too precious to be preoccupied with hidden or even imagined dangers, it may be dull but I do like to know where I next lay my head (and bum!)
Our experience was of Central Vietnam, chosen for the temperate year round weather with not too much rainfall at the time we travelled, in September. We spent our first 10 days in Hue, followed by 10 days in Danang, near to Hoi An. We were very much on a relaxation holiday rather than too much of a cultural, immersive expedition but did see and do some lovely things whilst catching up on some much needed rest and lovely spa treatments.
The Ana Mandara Hotel is situated down a dirt track outside of Hue on the beach, but a short drive into town Hue is clustered around the Perfume River, which splits the capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty in two. There are endless must-see historic sites, especially those that are UNESCO World Heritage designated. Our sightseeing included the ornate Imperial Citadel, colourful Thanh Toan Bridge, royal tombs and the Forbidden Purple City.
The Vietnamese are friendly and very keen to speak English taking great pride in their fluency and aptitude. They are generally very honest, but as you would in any city always ask the price of taxi fares/cyclo taxis pre-ride – great fun (and a little bit hairy!) to sit on the front of a cycle and be taken on a ride through busy traffic. We once had a cyclo fare escalate 500% as our ‘driver’ caught sight of a $50 note.
After a day or two recovering from the long journey, we took a boat trip on the Perfume River to the pagodas and temples. A fascinating trail, though disembarking was a little precarious (No health and safety here, we had to jump from the boat to the grassy river bank). We organised this with our guide from our airport private transfer. The money goes directly to the family who also sell soft drinks and beers for $1. And have a good supply of overpriced tourist toot! (Be prepared to see the children dressed in silk pyjamas on your return to the boat! a very enterprising and persuasive marketing tool!). The pagodas and temples are breathtaking but a half day trip was enough for me (decent Loos are scant!) – good idea to organise with other hotel guests – I think we paid $100 for the trip split between two couples and bought soft drinks and a couple of momentos to further boost the coffers of our hosts. It is just as easy to walk down to the rivers edge in Hue and be enticed on to one of the many boats moored there – depending on how adventurous a traveller you are! You will also see oxen and children playing on the river banks as you travel down the river, both banks are covered in lush vegetation and trees, with little else (true in 2012) to spoil the view.
Most hotels offer shuttle services into the towns which are free and efficient. Our waitress at the first hotel was lovely and invited us to an authentic Vietnamese coffee house that was tucked away, we were the only Westerners there so if you are offered hospitality do accept it, this was not a cynical ruse (believe you me, Mr H has not one UNcynical bone in his body and an acute aversion to acts of kindness, just in case!!!) but a genuine cultural expedition – with her offering to pay for our cyclos and coffee (both of which were refused, obviously!). The Vietnamese people we experienced both in our accommodation and out an about exploring were genuinely warm and engaging.
After 10 days we took a private transfer across the Hai Van pass. Absolutely stunning vistas across oyster bays (obligatory tourist stop near the top for genuine ??? pearl jewellery.) It’s possible to stop and see the fishermen that live on traditional boats year round. This same journey can be done as a passenger on old Russian motorbikes with ABS Motorbike Tours! We chose a large, comfy executive car!!
In DaNang we stayed at Fusion Maia. A stunning resort with an all inclusive spa (heaven), again on the beach but the sea in Vietnam is a little brackish in colour, as warm as bath water but I was never quite sure what was lurking beneath. I was advised that the colour was due to the time of year and followed heavy rains, earlier in the year the sea is blue but the Indian Ocean it ain’t! Fusion Maia is a unique all-villa resort, five-star service with each villa having its own pool and garden. The single storey villas are L shaped rooms with open bathrooms and offer a lot more space than your average hotel room. Breakfast can be taken any time of day, although the traditional (but SPECTACULAR!) breakfast with egg station is offered at conventional hours and then throughout the day a selection of bento boxes are on offer. The Fusion Maia also has a little Lounge outpost in HoiAn where there are additional (inclusive) express beauty services available, an extensive cocktail menu and an international menu while waiting for the shuttle bus back to the resort.
We did a cookery course which we loved, it was great to understand the basis of all Vietnamese food, a delicious balance of sweet combined with salty and sour, how to make real Pho and delicious Summer rolls! Danang itself did not hold much allure for us but can be interesting if you have time and want to explore a working city, it is the financial capital of Vietnam. Not too far away is the picturesque HoiAn. A pretty waterside town that looks straight out of a film set. The town has incredible tottering Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses and virtually traffic free cobbled streets. HoiAn is the place to go if you want any clothes made. Make sure you go in the first day to give you time for any alterations. Also be very clear with what you want. My top tip is if you have any clothing that you love and would like copied take it with you. You won’t be disappointed as long as you choose your fabrics and designs. carefully. (They were very keen to show us the Next catalogue as a source of inspiration!??!) In HoiAn there are some fabulous restaurants including Morning Glory (cookery book is great), Mermaid Restaurant, Mango Mango and Cargo Club. Also fantastic pasties and baguette – a legacy of the French colonisation between 1887 and independence in 1954.
Not to be missed if you are around, on the 14th day of every lunar month, at night, the old town of Hoi An switches off its lights and closes to motorised traffic. The town is transformed by flickering candlelight, multi-coloured lanterns and hoards of visitors who’ve come to see the full moon lantern festival whereby little paper bird lanterns are strewn across the river creating a magical view of the town and banks of the river.
A very funny guide to Vietnam is the TopGear show, if you are not a fan of Clarkson, Hammond and May then avoid – silly but does illustrate (amusingly and irreverently) Central Vietnam.
I hope that in the future we will return to spend a couple of nights in Hanoi and enjoy the stunning overnight cruise in Halong Bay, a trip to the mountain villages of Sapa down to Nha Trang and across to Laos … Our Asia adventure should definitely be continued.
One tip that works for me after travelling long haul is to ensure that my accommodation is good quality and quiet to catch up on sleep so when I return to see the delights of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh I will save that part of the trip until home time when I have acclimatised to the traffic flows and Vietnamese city pace. A jet lagged me would make for a tired and emotional travel companion and many travellers we encountered had found the city experience rather overwhelming.
Chào buổi sáng Vietnam