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Nha Trang

Tet is coming and we need a place to hunker down and wait for the holiday rush to be over.  We are told that it can be very difficult to find accommodation and book travel during this festive week.  Our itinerary suggests that the beach resort of Nha Trang might be a good place to hole up for seven days.  In fact by mid-December it was already impossible to book train tickets from HCMC to Nha Trang.  Fortunately, domestic air travel in Vietnam is very reasonable and we were able to book a flight.

We cab to Than Son Nhat airport -- amazing how these names resonate with those of us who grew up listening to nightly news reports during the 1960s -- and board the fifty-minute flight.

We land at Cam Ranh airport, built by the US Air Force during the war, and our ride is there to take us the half-hour trip into Nha Trang city, to Thien Truc guesthouse.

 

A short walk down our alley, through the Yen Sao street market, cross the street and we are on the beach.

 


When we mention Nha Trang, someone always mentions Russians.  And yes, there are a LOT of Russian tourists here.  In fact, most shop and restaurant signs are in Russian and Vietnamese, as are the menus.  We learn to ask for an English version.

Nha Trang is very much a holiday resort town.  The beach is magnificent and crowded with tourists from everywhere.  During this holiday week there are many Vietnamese families and, yes, there are thousands of Russians, but there are also families from China, Korea, Japan, Australia and many other places.
 

Across the street from the beach there are massive, high-end hotels, similar to most beach resorts, but just one street back is our small family-owned guest house for $25. per night.  One more street further back and we walk through typical Vietnamese neighbourhoods.

At first we aren't sure if we are going to like it here.  We really aren't resort people and lying on the sand baking in the sun holds no appeal for either of us.  Pushing through mobs of tourists on the sidewalks and dodging touts offering massages and cheap jewellery isn't really our favourite either.

Within a day or two, we find a favourite restaurant where we quickly are adopted as honourary family members.  We go to the beach for a swim each morning before the sun gets too hot and the crowds too thick and we spend more than one lovely afternoon sitting on a second floor terrace, drinking Saigon Special and watching the world pass on the street below.

Everywhere are little sidewalk food vendors, selling local food, primarily to local people.  The curious thing is the furniture:  the chairs and tables are all about half size.  The local people perch on these tiny chairs for hours, drinking tea and chatting with each other.  Neither of us think they look very appealing and we wonder how we would be able to stand up again after an hour in that position.

 




The beach, itself, is truly spectacular and is set in what is considered to be one of the world's most beautiful bays.  Offshore islands offer protection from the swell of the South China Sea although the first day we are there the surf is very heavy and swimming is discouraged.  By the next day, the weather has changed and everyone is in the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



The City has built very nice tree-shaded walkways all along the strip between the beach and the street, with benches and outdoor exercise apparatus. 

 

 
 



As we are checking in to Thien Truc Guesthouse, our hostess reminds us that this is New Year's Eve and there will be fireworks to watch at midnight.  We haven't been awake that late in weeks so we expect that we will miss the display.  Not likely!  At the stroke of midnight, we lurch up out of a sound sleep, certain that either the Americans or the Russians are bombarding the city again for old times sake.  We sit up in bed and look out our fourth story window to discover we have a ringside seat for one of the most spectacular fireworks displays we have ever seen.  The sky is lit up without a break for nearly twenty-five minutes.  The Year of the Monkey is kicked off in fine fashion.

 

 

 

Sightseeing in Nha Trang

One day, we walk about four and a half kilometers to the Po Nagar Cham towers, built between the 7th and 12th centuries, and still used for worship by Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists.

 

 

The towers stand on a granite knoll overlooking the Cai river, a site that was first used for worship as early as the 2nd century.  The structures are built of red bricks and are very attractive. 

Originally, worshippers passed through the pillared meditation hall, but only ten pillars remain.  They then climbed a very steep stone staircase to the towers, because the path to enlightenment isn't meant to be easy.  Fortunately, today's pilgrims ascend by a much less demanding route.

 

 


 

 

 
 


A highlight of our visit is a Vietnamese lady wearing a beautiful silk ao dai, demonstrating traditional weaving.  The loom is very primitive, yet she weaves an intricate pattern with amazing skill.
 

 

 

Another day, we hike  many blocks to visit the Long Son pagoda near the Nha Trang train station.  This is a very striking pagoda, founded in the late 19th century.  The entrance and roofs are adorned with mosaic dragons made of ceramic and glass

 

 
Every pagoda needs guard-dragons at the gate

 
Apparently, pagodas need dragons on the roof, too.

 
Ornate main altar


Up quite a few steps, we come upon a magnificent sleeping Buddha statue.  The white statue is enormous and because he is lying on his side, it is possible to touch it.  The statue's elbow is all polished by people rubbing it for good luck.

 

 


Up quite  few more steps, to the top of the knoll, is another enormous Buddha statue.  Around the base are relief busts of Thic Quang Duc and six other monks, who burned themselves to death in 1963 to protest the discrimination against Buddhists by the government of the day.

 
 
 
Fierce soldiers guarding the Buddha

 

 
A statue of the monk who burned himself in protest.

 
Girl Guides on a field trip to the site

The view from the top of the site across the city is worth the climb.

On the way back, we find a small museum that is probably of interest only to biologists.  Alexandre Yersin was a French bacteriologist who founded the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang and pioneered the development of vaccines against some of the common infectious diseases of the day.  He is best remembered for identifying the bacillus, Yersinia pestis, that causes bubonic plague and for determining that the same organism is found in rats.  This proved that rats, and their fleas, are the most common means of transmission of the plague.

 

 

To my disappointment, the museum is closed for the Tet holiday.
 


Time to move on to Hoi An

When we first arrive in Nha Trang, we aren't at all sure that we made the right decision to stay for seven days.  By the time we make our way to the station to catch our train for Hoi An, we aren't sure we want to leave.  It didn't take long to slip into a routine of swimming in the morning, a big bowl of pho bo for lunch, an afternoon nap and dinner at our favourite restaurant.  Nevertheless, the train pulls in on time and we are on our way.

The train is comfortable and fast although it is very crowded.  We make the acquaintance of two lovely young ladies who are travelling back to university after spending the Tet holiday with their families.  They are both keen to practice their English with us and one particularly sweet young thing asks me to show her how I do my long hair up.

Periodically, a cart comes through the car with drinks, snacks and somewhat dubious fast food.  There are the usual crying babies and other discomforts typical of train travel.  The toilets don't bear description -- let's just say, I'm glad I'm a boy! 

By the time the train pulls into Da Nang station ten hours later, we are glad to get off.  As promised, a nice young man is waiting with a car, to take us the 30 Km to our AirBnB in Hoi An.

Our accommodation at the Joy Hoi An Homestay is the best of our trip, so far.  Mr. Son, our host, owns an IT company, where he puts in long hours, but he obviously has excellent management skills because the homestay is very well-run.  Our ground-floor room is large and comfortable, there are kitchen facilities available for our use, bicycles are provided free of charge and, best of all, a really good breakfast is included in the price.

 
Joy Hoi An homestay -- the taller house on the left with the flag at the gate


To make our stay more pleasant, two other congenial couple are also there.  Denise and Daniel are a retired couple from Winnipeg who are on a three and a half month extended holiday.  Jim, originally from Singapore and Amy, American, and their three-year-old, Kailie plan to stay for a month before moving on.  We have some terrific discussions and Daniel turns out to be a professional chef and invites us to join in for dinner one evening.  Denise and Daniel have travelled extensively in Asia and we pump them for information.

One of the huge appeals of travelling is the acquaintances you meet along the way.

 

The ancient town of Hoi An

From the 15th to 18th centuries, Hoi An was one of the most important ports on the South China Sea.  Chinese and Japanese merchants engaged in trade and built homes and warehouses.  Hoi an was also the first port that traded with the Europeans when they started arriving in 1540. 
 
At the end of the 19th century, the mouth of the Thu Bon river silted up, so ships could no longer get to the docks and economic activity and trade shifted to nearby Da Nang.  By the 1990s, Hoi An was in a very depressed state.  Vietnam suffered an economic collapse when the Soviet Union fell apart and people were leaving to seek work in China.  When the first western tourists arrived in 1996, there was one hotel with eight rooms and no restaurants serving European food.  Today, Hoi An is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam.
 
It is also a hot-spot for custom tailoring.  Want  new suit?  One of many shops will measure you up this afternoon and have your new suit ready for final fitting tomorrow morning.
 
 
Not quite my style, but maybe Don Cherry shops here!


The very attractive Ancient Town, in the area of the old port along the river contains a remarkable number of well-preserved 16th and 17th century classical Chinese merchant houses. 
 
 
 
 

As well, there are very many beautiful French Colonial buildings is good shape.  Mercifully, both the French and the Americans managed to avoid raining death and destruction on this appealing town.

French colonial villa, now the Hill Station Cafe
 

This iconic structure is a unique covered wooden bridge, built in 1590 by the Japanese community to link with the Chinese area across the stream.
 


 
As could be expected, Hoi An is something of a victim of its own success.  Today, there are far more tourists than the little town can comfortably hold.  It is the only place where we begin to lose our patience with people trying to sell us massages and boat rides.  Yet new hotels are under construction everywhere.

Although, we enjoy the good restaurants and attractive cafes that tourism brings, we also find peaceful places to visit away from the tourist chaos.  We set out one day on the free bicycles that our homestay offers and cross the bridge to Cam Kim island.  Suddenly, we are in quiet peaceful village streets and little roads through the middle of rice paddies.
 
Farmer riding his water buffalo

 
Rice paddies
 
Load of cornstalks on a hand-cart

 
Water buffalo wallowing blissfully in a mudhole
 

 
Women working the fields
 
 
We seek out Kim Bong Carpentry Village where shipwrights build wooden boats by hand using centuries-old techniques.  In primitive workshops, carvers create beautiful works of art with primitive hand tools (and we must admit, one electric chainsaw).
 
Building a new boat using traditional tools and techniques

 
Wood carver at work (note traditional carving tool at lower right)
 
One of many carvings

One of the carvers proudly displays his masterwork:  a huge, elaborate wooden sculpture that took him a year to create.  It has 1,000 tiny dragons carved all over the surface.
 
Masterpiece

Another day, we rent a motor scooter and launch ourselves into the chaotic traffic as if we really do know what we are doing.  A 25-minute ride up the coast toward Da Nang brings us to Marble Mountain, one of the area's popular attractions.

The mountain, itself, is one of a group of limestone karst peaks that thrust up out of the coastal plain.  It has become a centre of stone carving and sculpture using local marble. Typical of karst topography, the mountain has many caves and grottoes, which have become sites of pilgrimage for Buddhist worshippers (and gawking tourists like us).  The caves have been made into temples with Buddha statues and altars.


Fortunately for pilgrims of our vintage, there is a modern elevator shaft to whisk us to the top, thereby avoiding some several hundred stone steps.  We do hike down under our own steam, with thigh muscles screaming in protest.

 

Elevator shaft to top
 
View of nearby similar peaks
 
Marble guard-dragon
 
Beautiful temple


The largest of the caves is like a majestic cathedral, with shafts of sunlight pouring in through openings in the ceiling.  We are impressed!
 
Cathedral cave
 
 
 
Fierce defender of the Buddha

The whole complex is very impressive and we spend a good three hours admiring temples, pagodas, caverns and grottoes.  Although it is definitely a tourist site, it is tastefully done and there is a lot of interesting things to see.

Our trusty 125 cc Japanese steed takes us back home safely with a stop at the very attractive An Bang beach for lunch and cold beer on the way.
 
Beautiful An Bang beach, near Hoi An

 

 
Fisherman making a new net

 
Fishermen use round coracles, which they scull with a single oar


 We really don't like crowded tourist sites, but we have to admit that that is where one finds good restaurants and accommodation.  It is also where one is likely to find other foreigners to socialize with.  On the whole we quite like Hoi An, its quiet suburbs and delightful nearby beach.  It is a place where we could imagine an extended stay someday.

 

The Imperial City of Hue

 
The easiest and most appealing way to get from Hoi An to Hue is by private car: US$56 for the four-hour trip.  Lam, our driver, speaks good English, stops along the way for us to sight-see and take pictures and answers our many questions.

One of the big attractions of this mode of travel is climbing up and over the scenic Hai Van pass, instead of  passing through the recently-constructed tunnel.  The Truong Son mountain range comes right down to the sea about 30 Km north of Da Nang and in the 15th century, formed the boundary between Vietnam and the Kingdom of Champa.  It is an incredibly scenic drive with spectacular views.  It also forms a climatic barrier between the tropical south of the country and the cooler, wetter north.

The imperial city of Hue (pronounced: hway) was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty, the last Emperors of Vietnam.  In 1802, the first Emperor, Gia Long, moved the capital to Hue from Hanoi in an effort to unite the north and the south under his rule.  He commenced building the Citadel, which dominates the heart of the city to this day.

The Citadel is a heavily-fortified complex, surrounded by 11 Km-long stone walls, a 30 meter wide moat and ten massive fortified gateways.  Inside the Citadel, is the Imperial Enclosure, with a similar perimeter stone wall and moat some 2.5 Km in length.  Within the Imperial Enclosure is the Purple Forbidden City, which was the residence of the Emperor and access was restricted to the Nguyen imperial family.
 
 

Outer wall, moat and fortified gate

Inner wall and Ngo Mon fortified gate.  Entrance to the Imperial Enclosure
 
Thai Hoa Palace, where the Emperor received dignitaries
 
Hall of the Mandarins

 
Beautifully reconstructed ceiling

 
Emperor's Reading Room
 
Roof detail

 
Building under reconstruction
 
Rubble is all that is left of the Purple Forbidden City

 
Gate to the Truong San Residence

 
Gate detail
 
Rickshaw for the use of the Imperial Family
 
Palanquin for the Queen Mothers' use

 
Beautiful porcelain urn
 
Dien Tho Residence -- apartments and audience hall of the Queen Mothers
 
Entrance gate, Dien Tho Residence
 
To Mieu Temple
 
 
 
Nine Dynastic Urns, one for each of the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.  Made of bronze; the largest weighs 2600 Kg.

Sadly, this magnificent complex was almost totally destroyed, first in 1885, during the war against Colonial France and again in 1967 during the Tet Offensive.  North Vietnamese forces seized Hue.  American and South Vietnamese forces responded by levelling whole neighbourhoods, battering the Citadel and using napalm on the Imperial Palace.  Approximately 10,000 people died in Hue, most of whom were civilians.

In recent years, huge (and expensive) efforts have been undertaken to restore some of the buildings to their former glory.  Other parts, including the Purple Forbidden City, are still just fields of rubble.

We spend half a day, walking from one stunning building to the next, trying to visualize life amid the pomp and ceremony of the imperial court.  Original photographs from those times are on display to help us imagine what it was like. 

By the time we leave the Citadel in the early afternoon, we are hungry and our feet and backs are aching from hours of walking.  We turn down a narrow street beside the outer moat and find a shady sidewalk café, complete with miniscule chairs and tables.  The congenial proprietress intercepts us as we stroll toward her and INSISTS that we sit and have lunch.  By this time, even the tiny chairs look good to us and we have delicious bowls of pho bo and cold Huda beer.
 
 
 
 

The Imperial Tombs

Although the Imperial Citadel is the premier attraction in Hue, the tombs of the various emperors are also very much worth visiting.  These are extravagant mausoleums built along the banks of the Perfume River in the countryside south of Hue by the rulers of the Nguyen Dynasty (1803 -- 1945).  Most of these royal tombs were planned and built by the emperors during their lifetimes and some were even used by them as country residences and retreats.

Khai Dinh was the second-last emperor (1916 -- 1925) and ruled essentially as a puppet to the French regime.  Construction of his elaborate tomb took years.
 
Steps leading to the Honour Courtyard

 

Honour Courtyard with mandarin guard of honour
 

 

 
Guard-dragon

 

 
Three flights of stair lead up to Thien Dinh, the ornate main building.  The walls and ceiling of this building are decorated in murals made of porcelain and ceramics.
 

Under an elaborate gilded canopy is a gilt bronze statue of the emperor.  His earthly remains are buried 18 meters below the statue.
 
Emperor Tu Duc (1848 -- 1883) designed his elaborate tomb for use both before and after his death.  It was built between 1864 and 1867.  The enormous expense and the forced labour required spawned a coup that was discovered and suppressed.
 
 
From the entrance the path leads to a small lake with a tiny island, where the emperor liked to hunt small game.
 
Luu Khiem Lake
 
 
 
The stele pavilion contains a 20-ton tablet.  It was composed by the emperor himself.

The majestic tomb of emperor Minh Mang who ruled from 1820 -- 1840, was planned during his reign, but actually built by his successor.  It lies in a beautiful natural setting surrounded by forest.

The Honour Courtyard is reached by three gates in the eastern wall.  From the courtyard, three granite staircases lead up to the stele pavilion.
 
Honour Courtyard
 
Bob's new friend

 

The Sung An temple was dedicated to Minh Mang and his empress.  It is reached  by three terraces and the Hien Duc Gate.
 
Hien Duc Gate
 
Sung An Temple

 
Interior of Sung An Temple

A monumental staircase with dragon banisters leads to Minh Mang's sepulcher.  The gate to the tomb is opened only once a year on the anniversary of the emperor's death.
 
 

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