asia · vietnam

Central Vietnam: Historic, Beautiful… But SO Touristy

I know, I’ve been terrible at updating this. Every night that we don’t go out somewhere, it’s almost always because we’re too tired to do anything – including writing in our journals, let alone the blog!

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Central Vietnam was one of our favourite places. We spent one night in Hué which was enough time to see the citadel, forbidden city and explore the charming area around our hotel – I loved restaurant street, DMZ bar and Brown Eyes bar! It also happened to be St. Paddy’s Day, which was the perfect excuse to utilise those two bars. I had a bright green cocktail called Shamrock, we played Jenga against one of the staff, and we sang our hearts out to Queen.

Then Born In The USA came on – in a military themed bar – and we got a little weirded out.

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The following day, we had the morning to take a relaxing walk, although we still weren’t used to the heat! We also bumped into a group of guys from our Halong Bay cruise staying at the same place, and they left for Hoi An around the same time we did.

Hoi An was amazing. We arrived as the sunset shone through the colourful lanterns and straight from there, I knew I’d love it. After a longer than expected walk to our hostel (which turned out to be a hotel cross hostel cross homestay and it was awesome!), we went for dinner at a place we had passed, and minutes into our meal a familiar set of faces shouted hello to us on their way past.

The next three days were some of the most relaxing we’ve had. We hired bikes ($1 a day!) and after a recommendation from our room mate, we set off for Hidden Beach, a little way up the road from the main tourist beach.

It was perfect. In the six or so hours we spent there, we only had sellers approach us a couple of times. One of them was a lovely old lady who called herself “Mango” and was happy to chat without us buying anything. There was a bar, sun loungers were free (unlike the other beach), parking was free (also unlike the other beach), and drinks were fab.

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The journey there had been so pretty that I decided to take some pictures on the way back. I took a quick one while riding and tucked it into my basket under a towel. One bump and it had flown out of the basket onto the concrete road.

It’s the first and only time I’ve cried on this trip. My camera had broken. It wouldn’t even turn on, and the lens was stuck out of shape. There was no way it could be fixed. We got back to the hotel to have a proper look, and I plugged it in to my laptop. MY PICTURES CAME UP! I could get them off! And now the camera was turning on! We took our bikes out again and found a camera repair place, where I desperately thrust it in his face and probably squealed when he told me he could fix it by tomorrow – all for little over £20 (after bartering).

In the evening, I was happier but still pissed off, but we finally explored the town centre properly. I got more upset because I wanted to take five thousand pictures. But we ate at a sister restaurant of the previous night – with a much posher menu – and it was the most expensive meal we’ve had in Asia. About £15 between us for a starter, two mains, a dessert and two drinks, ha!!

We had a lovely wander around, but it was so busy. It was a struggle to ride our bikes through town! Coupled with the lavish resorts we’d passed on the way to the beach and the lack of hostels, we could tell that this really was Tourist Town.

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The next day, we learned this even more when we cycled around some back streets and approached the centre from the other side. We were stopped and told to buy a ticket to ENTER THE TOWN. Having been in the town for free, we declined and cycled around a different way, arriving the other side of the bridge, where more ticket offices were open. So we had cheap cocktails overlooking the town instead.

I find this bizarre. To enter the town, from April last year you have to pay 120,000d (almost £4) which gives you access to 5 old buildings for a few days. I know it’s not much money, but to ENTER A TOWN? We later tested a theory given that we had got in free the previous night, and sure enough, we were still able to get in the same way for free. Does anyone else find this strange?

We cycled back to the camera shop (the long way around) and he asked us to come back in an hour. Oh God, he can’t fix it, I thought. We wandered off to amuse ourselves for another while, and when we came back, he asked to give him ten minutes. Getting nervous, we sat by the riverside for five minutes and cycled back. “Here!” he says, passing me my camera. “Sorry, is best I can do, but it works!” The lens looks intact, the bashes are minimised – but the shutter flickers. Even with the slight problem, I was SO happy to have my camera back!

So naturally, the first thing I did was cycle out into the country and take a selfie with a water buffalo. Seconds later, a man approached me, telling me it was his water buffalo. I knew he was about to ask for money for the privilege of taking the picture, so I had a quick and polite chat with him from a distance before scarpering as quickly as I could!

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We decided to continue round the road until we reached Hidden Beach again, and spent some of the afternoon relaxing there before heading back into town (for free) for our final evening – and the only one I’d have to actually take some pictures of how pretty it is!

We ate out across the river at a place called Fish N Chips N Stuff – purely for the name, obviously – and it was delicious. Ash had fresh barracuda fish & chips and I had deep fried prawns, and it was cheap as… well, chips!

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Our final day was spent exploring the town centre by day, and once again we got in for free! So strange! We couldn’t enter the temples (presumably you need the same ticket) but that didn’t matter. The town is almost just as pretty by day, and we stopped in a cute but VERY touristy café for some overpriced smoothies (still under £2 but they’re normally under £1!).

We relaxed back at the hotel before being picked up for our first overnight bus of the trip, to Nha Trang. I found Howl’s Moving Castle and read a third of it in the afternoon.

So my impressions of central Vietnam: beautiful and charming, but it IS touristy. People are clearly prepared to pay more and this is reflected in prices across both Hué and Hoi An – café prices, restaurant prices, drinks stalls and tourist attractions. Visitors don’t bother to learn the language, because every time I said ‘gam ern’ (thank you), the person would laugh in surprise and say ‘gam ern!! gam ern!’ You are pulled towards every tailor shop in Hoi An. There is far less street food.

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But the people are among the friendliest I met, and it was the first time we had kids excitedly shouting hello to us; people passing on bikes would say hello too. The family who owned the hotel were the most helpful they could have been and came out to wave us off when we left. I adored Hoi An, and despite it being so different to the rest of the backpacker trail, I was genuinely sad to say goodbye.

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