We reached Central Vietnam, hot and sweaty.
The blog introduction you really needed, of course. It’s true though, because we’d arrived on the train from rainy Hanoi and found ourselves landed in the full 35 degrees of our first destination in central Vietnam: Hué.
“It’s only 2km to our hotel,” I announced to Ash, leading to my dreaded suggestion that he knew was coming. “No point getting a taxi – we might as well walk!”
Ash looked from our large bags to me, shaking his head in disbelief and causing the sweat to drip off his face before we’d even started the walk. Half way to the hotel, I conceded that he may have had a point – but by now I was determined not to give in to a taxi for a single kilometre.
Despite our perspiring arrival, Central Vietnam quickly became one of our favourite places. We spent one night in Hué, giving us enough time to see the citadel and Imperial City, and to explore the charming area around our hotel – I loved the restaurant street, DMZ bar and Brown Eyes bar!
It also happened to be St. Patrick’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 bar staff, and we sang our hearts out to Queen – not quite the image I had in mind for our time in Vietnam, if I’m honest!
Then Born In The USA came on – in a military themed bar – and we got, uhh, a little weirded out.
The Imperial City & Citadel, Hué
The Imperial City, situated inside the citadel of Hué, was built to serve as the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty. What I find quite interesting is it feels like a place that’s several centuries old, steeped in history. Yet it wasn’t even built until the 1800’s, giving it a grandeur that’s actually more modern than it seems.
In the wars of the 20th century, most of the Imperial City was destroyed. In 1968, US troops seized the city and eventually only 10 of the 160 buildings were left standing. It’s astounding – for every one building that remains, there were another 15 until little more than half a century ago.
More shocking is the fact you can still see bullet holes all over the remaining buildings today. We’d read about the war; we’d seen the tanks and planes in Hanoi, even wreckage of war planes. But seeing literal remains of it was sobering.
The following day, we had the morning to take a relaxing walk in the town, although we still weren’t used to the heat so the walk itself ended up being short-lived! We bumped into a group of guys from our Halong Bay cruise in our hotel, and they left for Hoi An around the same time we did – but they were doing it by scooter (a la Top Gear) which would have been incredible. Unfortunately by taking the bus, we missed the Hai Van pass, so this is definitely on my list to do in the future.
This was our first Vietnam bus experience though, and let me tell you – it is UNIQUE. Ash immediately decided Asia transport may not be built for him. Pint-sized me found it quite cosy!
What do you think? Is this something you could get on board with?! All part of the adventure, I say! 😉 At least we started off with a 4-hour journey and not one of the overnight ones…
Want to read more Vietnam adventures? Check out our time in northern Vietnam here!
Hoi An was amazing.
We arrived as the sunset shone through the colourful lanterns, and straight from that moment, I knew I’d love it. After another longer-than-expected walk to our hostel (which turned out to be a hotel cross hostel cross homestay and it was awesome!), we checked in and went straight back out for dinner at a place we had passed. 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 from our hotel!) 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.
Hidden Beach – NOT An Bang Beach!
A lot of people indulge in some beach time in Hoi An, and head straight to the most famous of them – An Bang. We didn’t visit, but from what we’ve heard, it’s overpriced, overcrowded and over-hawkered.
Hidden Beach 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 with cheap drinks, sun loungers were free (unlike An Bang beach), parking was free (also unlike An Bang beach), and drinks were fab.
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 rogue 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, and worse, I was worried that I’d lost all my photos. We frantically rode back to the hotel to take 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!
(For the record, the photo I literally broke the camera for wasn’t even a good photo?!)
We took our bikes out again (the camera safely in its bag) and found a camera repair place, where I desperately thrust it in his face and probably outwardly squealed when he told me he could fix it by tomorrow – all for little over £20 (after bartering).
Old Town Hoi An
In the evening, we took a wander around town and I got more upset because I wanted to take five thousand pictures. 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.
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 2014 you have to pay 120,000d (almost £4) which gives you access to five historic 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. Who knows if this will still be the case in the future, or if we just got lucky?
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 another 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 figured 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!
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 ridiculous 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!
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 just as pretty by day.
We stopped in a cute but VERY touristy café for some overpriced smoothies (still under £2 but they’re normally under £1!), and the waitress was surprised when we thanked her in Vietnamese. It spoke volumes to me that this was a surprise to her.
We also swung by the Japanese Covered Bridge which was busy as all hell, and settled for some pictures next to it instead.
We never did get a tailor-made suit or dress, which is one of the “must-dos” of Hoi An. It was partly because we wouldn’t be returning home for another year or more, and if we go back it’s something I’d like to do, however “touristy” that is.
Instead of heading to another expensive café (I use the term “expensive”, erm, lightly – but we are backpackers after all!), we opted to relax back at the hotel before our first overnight bus of the trip, to Nha Trang. I found a copy of Howl’s Moving Castle on the bookshelf and read a third of it in the afternoon, looking over the balcony onto the road.
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 and more actual restaurants catering to tourists.
Despite this, I absolutely ADORED the charm of Hoi An. The people are among the friendliest I met – someone from a tailor shop approached me and I said I’d be leaving the next day. She stood and chatted with me anyway. It was the first time we’d had kids excitedly shouting hello to us; people passing on bikes would say hello as they passed, too. The family who owned the hotel were the most helpful they could have been and even came out to wave us off when we left.
Like a lot of “touristy” places, there’s a REASON Hoi An is popular. I’d go back in a heartbeat – even if I had to pay to get into the old town this time!
I loved it, and despite it being so different to the rest of the backpacker trail, I was genuinely sad to say goodbye.
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