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Tag: Hai Van Pass

Good Morning Vietnam … Part II

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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!!

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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

For Good Morning Vietnam Part 1 Click here 

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Good Morning Vietnam …. Part 1

IMG_0878As I am now searching for my next holiday destination I thought it would be a good moment to get down some thoughts on our Vietnam Adventure …. So this is the postcard I should have sent from there a couple of years ago …… this post is the equivalent of the postcard you find at the bottom of your beach bag when you drag that same sand laden bag out a year later, there it is just waiting to be sent, stampless but complete with grease spots, salt, sand and an unwrapped Werthers original stuck to it coupled with fond memories … happily through the wonders of modern science this is no longer sitting in my beach bag but will instead be sitting here as a postcard to you all.

We chose Vietnam as it offered not only the opportunity for a new destination but also great value, when compared to Europe which over the Summer months can be eye-wateringly expensive.  After doing a little research, I discovered that both the North and South of the country can experience a lot of rain at the time we planned to travel in September. Influenced by this, we chose two resorts in Central Vietnam which had the added benefit of not requiring anti-Malarial drugs. We only needed the standard jabs for Hepatitis, Tetanus etc (always check with your GP’s practice nurse before travelling as they will have up to date information on immunisation for all over the world).  Vietnam definitely offers up new and exciting experiences, culture and cuisine. As with all our travels we had some very funny moments enjoying all these. 

The journey was long with no inflight entertainment simply because, it would seem, that the stewards weren’t quite sure how to make the system work, although the films on offer all seemed to be widely available on DVD anyway (#firstworldproblems – quit my moaning!). Vietnam Airlines at the time was new to the UK direct market and I think may have been a work in progress, although the staff were absolutely lovely – and we were offered limitless Pot Noodle at any time of day or night throughout  the journey (yum! not).   After a 13 hour flight we had a stopover in Hanoi which truly was an assault on all the senses, anyone who has travelled long-haul with little sleep knows that the brain is working on an altogether different frequency to normal.  Hallucinations are not unusual, tired and emotional in the extreme, Mr H and I get a little snippy with each other, there is quite a bit of that spittly, under-the-breath talking between gritted teeth followed by tear-filled eyes ready to weep any second – and that’s just him!!  Hanoi airport and the interchange was baffling to our sleep deprived brains – my one saving grace was that at 5ft 2 and a half inches, I was unusually a head above most of the indigenous travellers as we moved from International Arrivals to Hanoi Domestic Departures, which gave me an advantageously clear view as to where I was trying to get to. Once in the domestic departure lounge we were desperate to eat something  …. And more Pot Noodle was all that was on offer.  I kid you not, we saw a lot of the pour on water type noodles in a pot on offer – a students dream, for me – not-so-much!

A brief and comfortable one hour flight from Hanoi to Hue on the domestic service which is reminiscent of a 1960’s air travel infomercial, this is the way to cover the country if your destinations are far apart.    We came out of the airport to be greeted by 20 or so yipping taxi drivers, each vying for our attention but not permitted to approach from beyond a line where they stand ever hopeful that you will pick their taxi over the others.   We gratefully fell into the care of a pre-booked tour guide and private transfer who bundled us into a car and off we went …. Only to receive a phone call 5 minutes into the journey  to return to the airport. Our tour guide had unwittingly sent us in the wrong car and needed us to return, change cars and he would join us to give us a little history as we were driven to the hotel. 

Vietnam is very laid back in its approach to service. always friendly and sometimes a little hit and miss and no concept that telling a group of two couples that one man is more handsome than the other may be offensive … yes, we really had THAT conversation, fortunately Mr H was the more handsome so I didn’t feel compelled to protect his honour and good name.  oh yes, and another favourite is to tap your (his) tummy and say “happy Buddha” … not rude at all! 

On the way to the hotel we passed paddy fields and farmers laying their rice crops out in a very busy road to dry (and not one truck, cyclist or moped drove over this valuable crop – seems rice may be a more valuable commodity than life!!!), as well as goats, chickens and assorted livestock milling about in the roads, …. And a herd of Water Buffalo …. We are yet to understand if these water buffalo that we had seen everywhere belong to anyone or if they roam free but they, along with the most beautiful mountain range skylines capped in white clouds that are the perfect introduction to Vietnam. 

Our guide-book advised us that when crossing the street one should avoid sudden movements and walk at a steady pace, however this is difficult in practice when you are faced with a sea of mopeds coming at you from both directions – the instinct is to flay your arms around and RUN.  We survived and took away with us the indelible aural memory of NeepNeep …. the constant sound of Vietnam and its traffic!!

IMG_0804Despite telling ourselves this was going to be a relaxation only holiday, with no sightseeing, a deluge of rain prompted us to don our Haviainas and a very fetching khaki plastic duck suit to wade through Hue’s old town and visit the Citadel …. This ancient palace is now little more than ruins but still a city-within-a-city surrounded by lotus blossom and water-lily gardens …  

IMG_0966Anxious that we may be missing out on the culture we also booked a Dragon Boat Trip on The Perfume River to visit ancient tombs and a Pagoda and working monastery (The Perfume River is a bit of an anomaly, it’s NOT perfumed! the waters are fast flowing in places and milky brown in colour)   …. The sightseeing, on a very sunny day, was incredible and the Dragon Boat journey memorable. The boats are used during the day for tourist trips but are also the homes of the family who take you along the river and tourists are their main source of income … The youngest ‘crew’ member was 3 and a very enterprising salesman, using our time on shore to swiftly change into silk pyjamas (very conveniently available for sale) and turn up the cute levels. 

IMG_0883After ten days in Hue we prepared to move on to our next destination.  As we passed through Central Vietnam and over the Hai-Van Pass (Sea Cloud), a three-hour drive takes you to another province and it becomes clear that each region is different and unique in its people and food. A cookery class in our first hotel taught us how to make Hue Pancake (Banh Khoai), hand rolls (banh beo) and Bun Bo Hue Noodle soup and introduced us to our lovely translator Nhung who invited us the following day for Vietnamese Coffee at an off the tourist trail Coffee Shop sitting on the banks of the Perfume River   An experience we would have missed had Nhung not met us after she had finished her working day, as the only Westerners at this off the beaten track coffee bar we were made very welcome. 

… From purchasing the cheapest ‘Genuine’ 3 dollar Ray Bans from a street seller who, whilst we were deciding on tortoiseshell or black, put in a call to his hilarious daughter in the silk market who hot-footed it over to meet us and frog marched us to her stall of yards and yards of fabrics and a team of tailors. They proudly presented us with several seasons of Next catalogues and nobly advised us they could make anything we liked for very cheap US-dollaaagh or Vietnam Dong

IMG_1033We spent a couple of very happy hours with about 15 women who were so generous in spirit (I know there was a sale at the end of it!) and so much fun that it really was one of the highlights of our holiday. Kelvin had a massage while I browsed the Internet for designer togs and we were introduced to friends and family, all interestingly, purveyors of fine quality Vietnamese goods!!

And of course we have had our usual trials and tribulations with the paper knickers at the spa, It is safe to say that the cut of the Vietnamese gib is no roomier or generous than those found in the Indian Ocean …. and once again we managed to reduce the therapists to hysteria with Mr H’s struggle to get said knickers past his knees!!

So we took home with us some new cookery skills, very happy memories and our daily conversation with street vendors … Where you from? …. London? Or Kangaroo? …. Luvvly Jubbly (who teaches them this rubbish?) …. You know Elton John? Not personally, no …. 

Most important travel item is …. A camera!

More information to follow on the resorts and top tips for travel

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