Mekong Delta

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Deep in the south of Vietnam, you’ll find the laid-back Mekong Delta, an expansive network of water famous for its floating markets and traditional way of life. I’d arranged to spend a night in a home stay in the Delta to experience a slice of traditional Vietnamese hospitality and having spent almost two weeks touring the country, I was looking forward to some rest and relaxation. And this was the perfect place to find it.

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To get to my home stay, which was nestled in the heart of the Mekong Delta, I boarded a boat in one of the waterside towns that was to take me across an enormous stretch of water to a series of narrow canals and waterways where my home stay was located. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the size of the river we were about to cross – it was ginormous, one of the biggest I’ve seen.

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I was in awe, not only of the huge body of water, but also of the numbers of boats crossing it. There were small canoes, bigger ships that looked like tankers, as well as boats transporting the locals and their bicycles. The people here have really adapted to life on the water and it was fascinating to watch.

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Once we’d crossed the large expanse of water, we hopped into a smaller canoe to tour the canals around Vinh Long. The waterways are quite narrow and had a swampy feel to them, and I was riveted watching the local people going about their lives on and around the water. I watched people transporting goods, such as fruits, fishing nets and logs, along the canals. I even saw one man swimming in the water.

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We stopped off along the way at a fruit farm; a pottery, where we watched the staff making pots using traditional methods; as well as a small shop, where the people who ran it showed us how to make a toasted rice snack. We spent a good couple of hours touring the waterways, going in and out of the various inlets, and it was interesting seeing another side to Vietnam, one that was very different to what I’d experienced so far.

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Late afternoon, we arrived at our home stay. It was a complex of wooden huts near the water’s edge and the family who ran it were really friendly and welcoming. It also amazingly had great WiFi. After dumping our things, we spent an hour or so relaxing in the hammocks that surrounded the complex, reading and watching the world go by. It was wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

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When the heavens broke to unleash a torrential downpour, I lay swinging in my dry hammock, enjoying the lightning show. After the rain, lots of wildlife emerged including giant white snails, frogs, and some bizarre amphibious/fish-like creatures with two front legs. I was fascinated by the wildlife, which was so alien to what we have in the UK, yet less amused when a giant tree rat also decided to come out to play. The rodent was running around the ceiling beams of the complex and I’m not going to lie, I was terrified. Mice I can cope with, but rats are another story…

After a few hours rest and relaxation, we joined the family to prepare supper – although I’m not sure I was much help as I kept getting told off! I really enjoyed getting stuck in with the dinner, even if I wasn’t doing a great job of making sure all my spring rolls were similar sized. We then sat down to a wonderful feast. Once dinner was over and the plates cleared, the family put on a traditional musical show for us, which was fantastic.

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The next day, we were up bright and early, and headed back through the waterways of Vinh Long. Our destination was the Cai Be floating market, where the locals gather together in their boats to buy and sell their goods. I was really interested by the market and how the transactions take place, and it was great to watch it in action.

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I very much enjoyed my visit to the Mekong Delta with its very traditional way of life and water-based culture. It was a peaceful and relaxing part of the world, and unlike anything else I’d experienced in Vietnam. There was a real laid-back feel to the place, which contrasted greatly with the hustle and bustle of the cities, and it was the perfect place to unwind before I headed to Ho Chi Minh City for the final leg of my Vietnamese journey.

Cu Chi Tunnels

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The ingenious, sprawling network of tunnels at Cu Chi, 70km north-west of Ho Chi Minh City, were used as a base by the Viet Cong to carry out their guerilla war campaign against the US between 1960 and 1975.

It’s hard to describe just how clever and extensive these tunnels are. From the ground, you’d never know there was a series of intricate tunnels under your feet. There’s no indication there’s a hidden world beneath the jungle floor. The entrances are expertly concealed, while the ventilation shafts, that ensured a circulating flow of air throughout the network, were built to resemble termite mounds (below).

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What’s even more remarkable is that the tunnels weren’t just a network of tunnels. They boasted multiple floors and rooms, and were home to kitchens, living quarters, meeting places, as well as battle areas. In short, the Viet Cong had everything they needed to survive within these warrens.

On arriving at the site, we headed inside a large hut where we had a brief history lesson about the war and the resistance fighters, providing a useful context for what we were about to see. We then followed a series of trails around the complex, which showed how the Viet Cong lived, worked and fought during the war.

Among the notable sights was a workshop, where we learned how the Viet Cong fashioned shoes out of old tyres (above) and all sorts of other ingenious things; a kitchen; and a dining room, where we had the chance to try some tapioca. There were also re-enactments with models that showed what life was like for the Viet Cong. At one point our guide showed us the concealed entrance to one of the tunnels (above) – and if it wasn’t for him showing us, I’d never have known it was there .

The most gruesome part of the tour was seeing the booby traps set by the Viet Cong to capture the US soldiers. The Viet Cong devised all sorts of horrifying traps that were hidden from view, but accidentally step on one of them and you’d be maimed, or in all likelihood, killed. Some of these contraptions wouldn’t have been out of place in Game of Thrones and they made me mighty uncomfortable – some were unnecessarily violent and almost all involved painful looking spikes.

After walking around the complex above ground, it was time to explore the tunnels themselves. Most of the tunnels are off limits to visiting tourists as they’re home to scorpions and other dangerous critters, but one of the tunnels has been opened up to visitors. The tunnel was really narrow, dark, hot and claustrophobic – our guide told us that some American soldiers got stuck in the tunnels trying to infiltrate them and I could see why.

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The deeper we got into the tunnel network, the smaller and smaller they became, and I was having to seriously squat and crouch to keep up with my guide. At various points along the way there were exit points so you could leave the tunnel if you felt you’d had enough.

After being assured by my guide that I wouldn’t get stuck, I chose to go the whole length of the tunnel and I’m glad I did. I found the experience exhilarating and I was amazed at just how narrow the tunnels became. It was fascinating and quite unlike anything else I’d experienced.

At the end of the tour, there was a small café area and a shop, as well as shooting range where visitors can try their hand at firing some weapons. I didn’t have a go on the shooting range as I felt uncomfortable with the idea as the site is a war memorial and I’ve never had any desire to shoot a weapon.

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That aside, the Cu Chi Tunnels offer a fascinating insight into what life was like for the Viet Cong during the war and the extraordinary methods they employed to fight back against the Americans. It’s one thing reading about a war in a history book, but seeing how people lived and fought bring the horrors of war to life. It was an interesting and thought-provoking visit.

My Son

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Hidden away in the jungly hills of central Vietnam is the ancient religious complex of My Son. The ruined complex, built by the Cham people, is home to a series of ornate red brick temples. Sadly some of the most striking examples were destroyed by the US during the Vietnam War, but what remains offers a fascinating glimpse into a magnificent ancient culture and the people who built it.

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Built between the 4th and 13th centuries, the complex of My Son was discovered by the French towards the end of the 19th century and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple complex has been divided into a series of groups and during my visit, I made a beeline to groups B and C, which are home to the best preserved temples.

The weather-worn temples are incredible and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re covered in lots of intricate carvings (above), including wonderful sculptures similar to those I’d admired at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang. They’re really something and I couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship of the Cham people as I walked around the site.

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The entire site was far bigger than I’d anticipated, and while groups B and C weren’t massive, there were a fair few temples to explore and I spent quite a bit of time looking around them all. You can go inside some of the temples, too, which I enjoyed, as I was keen to see how the buildings looked from the inside, as well as the outside. After admiring the many temples, I headed over to the small galleries in group D where a number of sculptures once housed in the temples were on display.

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I really enjoyed my visit to My Son. It was a fascinating place and the temples are beautiful. It’s a real shame that group A, which housed the complex’s most magnificent temples, was destroyed during US bombing raids and that such incredible buildings have been lost to posterity. The complex is magical as it is, but it must have been truly spectacular during its heyday with so many bright, ornate red brick temples in the middle of the thick green jungle. A must-see if you’re ever in Vietnam.

 

Hoi An

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The ancient trading port of Hoi An is utterly charming and its old town embodies traditional Vietnamese culture, as for the most part, it’s remained unchanged for centuries. In 1999, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pretty port is the perfect place to spend a few days mooching around – which is exactly what I did.

Sights

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One of the town’s most notable sights is the Japanese Covered Bridge (above) in the old quarter near to the Thu Bon River. The beautifully ornate bridge was built by members of the town’s Japanese community in 1593 and connects the old quarter with the Chinese quarter. During my visit, the bridge was heaving with tourists, but the hordes of people couldn’t detract from how pretty it is.

Lanterns

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One of my favourite things about Hoi An was the colourful handmade lanterns hanging in the old quarter. The lanterns were delightful by day, but by night, when they were all lit up, they were simply spectacular. The town hosts regular lantern festivals throughout the year. Sadly, there wasn’t one taking place while I was there, but I should imagine it’s a magical sight.

Shopping

If you like shopping, Hoi An’s the place for you as the old quarter is teaming with shops selling all sorts of goods, from stationery to scarves, and crockery to clothing. I spent hours looking around the shops.

The town is also the place to go if you’re in the market for some bespoke clothing. There are a number of tailors in Hoi An and I had some trousers and a dress made at Yaly Couture, which has two branches in the old quarter.

I went in, chose a pattern and the fabric, then had a number of fittings over the course of the next few days. It was really affordable, especially for clothing that is made to  measure and fits perfectly, and definitely worth doing if you’re in Hoi An. It was also great fun watching everyone else having their clothes made and seeing how different everyone’s tastes were.

Film set

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As I spent my days wandering around Hoi An, I found myself stumbling across some interesting sights. On my first day in the town, I came across a film crew filming an action sequence next to the covered market. I joined the crowds for a bit to watch the filming as whatever they were filming looked very dramatic. The guy pictured above seemed to be the star of the film – so if anyone knows who he is, let me know in the comments!

River cruise

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Hoi An is situated around the Thu Bon River, so there are lots of people offering boat rides. On our second morning in the town, we decided to take one of the guys up on his offer and spent an hour or so touring the river. We sailed past lots of fields and other boats, and it was an enjoyable, relaxing experience.

About halfway into the journey, a couple of people fishing began putting on a display for us with their nets, before one of the fishermen clambered onto our boat and beckoned me to have a go. Now, I was aware before I said yes, that this was probably an arrangement between our boat driver and the fisherman, but I’d never tried fishing before so I decided to give it go.

When the fishermen put on their display, it looked really easy and quite spectacular. It turned out to be much harder than it looked, and my net went a pitifully short distance when I attempted to throw it. It’s safe to say I won’t make much of a fisherman, but I had fun and it was good to try my hand at a new skill.

Cua Dai Beach

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Just outside Hoi An is Cua Dai Beach, a popular beach resort on the South China Sea. We decided to spend an afternoon there, and it was really easy to get to, if a little monotonous as we just walked down Cua Dai Road for an hour or so past a never-ending series of fields until we eventually came to the resort (we got a taxi back to our hotel).

The beach is a long sandy stretch of coast that carries on as far as the eye can see. On the day we went, the sea was really choppy so unfortunately swimming was forbidden, but undeterred I had a refreshing waist-high paddle in the water. We spent a relaxing afternoon on the beach chilling out, reading and watching the world go by. There were also lots of teeny little crabs on the beach that kept us amused.

Danang

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On our way from Hue to Hoi An, we stopped off briefly in Danang, a bustling city on the banks of the Han River. The city is home to a majestic golden Dragon Bridge, which apparently breathes fire and sprays water. Sadly the weather was atrocious the day we visited and with the gloomy clouds and lashing rain, it was hard to get a good photo of the bridge (above). It also sadly didn’t breathe fire or spray water while we were there!

After taking a couple of photos of the bridge, we headed across the road to the Museum of Cham Sculpture. The Cham people are an ethnic group who lived in the region for millennia and built the nearby ancient complex of My Son, among others. I was set to visit My Son in a few days so I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing some Cham sculpture before my trip.

The museum was fascinating and I loved the sandstone sculptures, especially the dancing figures (above), which were captured in lots of different poses. There was lots to see and it was great there were so many statues in seemingly good condition, given that much of the Cham art was destroyed during the Vietnam War, as well as by vandals over the years. I was really glad we visited.

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After a good hour or so exploring the museum and looking at all the artefacts, we moved on to our next stop – the Marble Mountains, a series of magnificent limestone rocks on the outskirts of the city. As we arrived the rain began belting down again, so I bought a fetching luminous pink poncho from a vendor nearby before climbing a long series of steps up the mountain. At the top, there were a number of attractive ornate shrines dedicated to Buddha and we spent a bit of time looking around them all.

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We then wandered down a series of steep steps into an enormous cavern inside the mountain. The cave was home to a series of shrines, as well as another statue of Buddha. I was amazed at the size of the shrines and you could even walk around one of them, which was essentially a small temple within the cave.

Before heading back down the mountain, we stopped off to admire a tall green pagoda (above) and then made our way to a viewing platform, which looked out over the city below, to take in the views. Despite the appalling weather, it was an interesting way to spend a couple of hours in Danang.

 

Vietnamese food

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My main take away about Vietnamese cuisine is that the Vietnamese love to wrap their food. Even if you don’t think it can be wrapped, it will probably be wrapped and then dipped in a sauce before being eaten. Spring rolls, summer rolls, pancakes wrapped around a filling which are then wrapped in a giant lettuce leaf, fish wrapped in banana leaves… the list of foods I had to wrap before eating was long – but tasty!

Vietnamese food is very healthy. Think lots of fresh vegetables, fish and grilled meats, rice, noodles and piles of fruit for dessert. Peanuts, for those with allergies, are popular, too. In terms of its spiciness, I didn’t find the food to be as spicy as that of Vietnam’s South East Asian neighbours. Apart from an excellent (and hot) seafood pho I had opposite the central market in Ho Chi Minh City, all the food I had was fairly mild.

My favourite discoveries

Here are some of my favourite discoveries during my trip:

Fresh coconuts

Call me stupid, but before going to Vietnam I hadn’t realised that fresh coconuts were green. I’d only ever seen the dried brown versions we get in the UK and it had never occurred to me that this might not be how they grow on trees. Needless to say, the fresh green coconuts were a revelation. I often ordered them in cafés or restaurants, drinking the refreshing juice inside and then once I’d finished, devouring the flesh. Delicious.

Pink dragon fruit

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I was familiar with white dragon fruit before my trip, but had no idea there was a pink variety. I found I much preferred the pink version, which is sweeter than the white one, and I found myself seeking it out wherever I was.

Jack fruit

I was intrigued when I came across this sweet banana-flavoured fruit on my street food tour in Hanoi. The fruit has a large stone at its centre and you peel off the flesh strips. It’s not my favourite fruit as I found it ever so slightly sickly, but it’s worth trying.

Beer

Now I hadn’t drunk beer for a good decade before going to Vietnam. But beer is ubiquitous and I’d often sample the local brew with dinner. The beers seemed lighter than the ones you get in the UK and for someone who isn’t a fan of the golden nectar, I found them very drinkable and refreshing.

Vietnamese coffee

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Even if you don’t like coffee (and I don’t), you have to try Vietnamese coffee when in Vietnam. It’s a shot of espresso mixed with condensed milk, egg yolk and sugar to form a very sweet, foaming coffee. It wasn’t my favourite thing I tried, but my travelling companions who like coffee, loved it.

My favourite dishes

I ate a lot of good food in Vietnam, but herewith were my favourite dishes:

Pho

Well, I couldn’t go to Vietnam without trying the country’s most famous dish, could I? Pho is a Vietnamese soup that usually has noodles and fish or meat added to it. I had a fabulously spicy seafood pho near the central market in Ho Chi Minh City that was packed with seafood and full of flavour. So good!

Banh cuon 

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Banh cuon are very thin, steamed rice pancakes. The ones I had were filled with mushrooms and topped with coriander and fried shallots, and you dipped them in a sauce before eating. I tried these on my street food tour in Hanoi and they were incredible.

Summer rolls

I’m probably showing my ignorance again here, but I had no idea that summer rolls existed before I encountered them in Vietnam. I really liked them and ate them a lot during my trip. Summer rolls are sheets of rice paper filled with a variety of foods such as vegetables, noodles, seafood or meat, which are rolled and then dipped in a sauce before eating. They’re the spring roll’s healthier cousin – they’re essentially a spring roll that hasn’t been deep fried.

Cooking in Hoi An

Wanting to get the most out of my experience in the country, I joined a cookery class in Hoi An. I’m quite a keen cook and have been on a number of cookery courses in the UK, so when I heard about the cookery class, I was eager to give it a go.

During the two-hour class, we made mackerel grilled in a banana leaf (delicious!), vegetable spring rolls, a chicken and green papaya salad, banh xeo (a fried rice pancake) and a sweet and sour dipping sauce. Everything we made was really easy – and most importantly very tasty.

Having eaten a lot of good food during my time in Vietnam, it was great to learn how to make it, too. If you’re in Vietnam and have the chance to join a cookery class, I’d really recommend it.

 

 

Cycling around Hue

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First off, I should probably start by saying I hate cycling. I mean I really, really, really hate cycling. The last time I’d been on a bicycle was a disastrous cycling trip around Richmond Park in London five years earlier. So when I was asked if I fancied spending the morning cycling around the countryside near Hue, I hesitatingly agreed. I was promised quiet, empty, flat roads, which didn’t sound too daunting.

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Fast forward to the cycling trip, when it soon became clear we were setting off from our hotel. In the middle of Hue. Which meant I’d have to navigate the insane Vietnamese traffic before I even got to the countryside. I panicked, but decided to give it a go anyway.

I got kitted out, faffed around with my bike seat, put my helmet on and was ready to go. I had just one goal – staying alive. I gingerly began cycling, trusting that the Vietnamese would do their usual trick of weaving around me, and kept going. Luckily, the Vietnamese did just that and the only time I came to a stop was when a truck pulled out unexpectedly before me, forcing me to slam on my brakes. I was still upright though, so I cursed him, waited patiently for him to reverse out my way and carried on.

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Soon we left the bustling city behind and were in the countryside. Amazed I’d navigated the city unharmed, I was feeling a little more confident, and while I was still petrified, I began to relax and enjoy myself. Thankfully, the country roads were long, flat and quiet as promised; they were also in reasonably good condition. The countryside was peaceful and we cycled past lots of fields and streams. At one point we came across a man ploughing his field with a couple of oxen (above).

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We also came upon a long, narrow road bordered on either side by rice paddies (above). The paddies stretched out as far as the eye could see and weren’t at all what I was expecting. Whenever I’d seen rice paddies in photos or on the television they were always on stepped hillsides, but these paddies were enormous fields submerged underwater.

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We carried on cycling until we reached a village where we decided to park our bikes and have a look around. There was a stream running through the village with a pretty wooden bridge with a tiled roof connecting the two sides. The Vestige of Thanh Toan bridge was built in 1776 and inside houses a shrine dedicated to the wife of a high-ranking mandarin in the Thuan Hoa region who helped pay for its construction. It was a charming structure and is recognised as a national heritage monument in Vietnam.

On the other side of the river there was a covered market, which was filled with people, mostly women, sitting cross-legged on the floor, preparing and selling their goods. They sold all sorts of things, from fruits and vegetables to meat, fish, and disturbingly, hens cooped up in cages. I was fascinated by the market and how make-shift it was, although I was a little put off by the many flies buzzing around the meat and fish stalls. Having visited one of the big, bustling markets in Hanoi, it was interesting to see how much it contrasted with the simple, rural market.

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After a look around the market and a quick snack, we were back on our bikes and cycling back towards the big city. I was quite enjoying the cycling by now, it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated – although I was dreading hitting Hue’s busy roads again. We came across a striking decorative shrine at one point and hopped off our bikes to take a quick photo (above), before carrying on. Once we hit the outskirts of the city, the traffic became increasingly busy but I continued without stopping and didn’t get run over or cause an accident, which I considered a resounding success.

My cycling trip was more terrifying and eventful than I’d anticipated, but I was glad I gave it a go. It was really nice to see the Vietnamese countryside, which was quiet and peaceful, and so far removed from the hustle and bustle of the cities. I was also interested by the more traditional practices I came across, such as the man with his oxen and the relaxed market, as it offered a contrasting perspective to what I’d seen so far in the cities and in Halong Bay. More importantly, the trip hasn’t put me off cycling – in fact, I’d be up for doing it again!

Hue – Day 2

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On my second day in Hue, I headed back towards the citadel as I was keen to check out a few museums there that had been mentioned in my guide book. Top of my wish list was the Royal Antiquities Museum, which is said to house some fabulous pieces that once belonged to the Nguyen dynasty.

I was really keen to see some of the treasures from Vietnam’s imperial period, but when I eventually found the museum, the guard wouldn’t let me in. I couldn’t buy a ticket on the door and if I understood correctly, I was only allowed in with a ticket to the Imperial City. Now I’d thrown away my ticket the previous day and not really keen to buy another just to visit the antiquities museum, I decided to try a different museum.

The only other museum that I could a) find and that b) looked open was the Military Museum. So I ventured inside. The museum was open air and near to the entrance there were a number of US military vehicles that had been captured during the Vietnam War.

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I was struck by how militaristic the language was that was used in the displays, and while I’m very aware of the horrors that were inflicted during the war, I was a little surprised that there was no attempt at neutrality in the museum’s tone. Many exhibits read like propaganda. Nevertheless, it was interesting to read about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese Government.

I wandered around the vehicles and then looked inside a few of the buildings. One of them, unsurprisingly, featured an exhibition about the war, which was really informative and interesting. But another exhibition showcased random objects, including coins and bits of ceramics, and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about.

The museum was really quiet, there was hardly anyone else there and for the most part, I was the only person looking at the displays. I found the whole place decidedly odd, from the lack of other visitors to the propaganda-like tone and the randomness of the exhibitions. It was one of the oddest museums I’ve ever visited.

Having finished exploring the museum, I decided to go for a walk around Hue. I crossed one of the massive bridges over the Perfume River and aimlessly ambled around, taking in the various sights and sounds. Walking down Le Loi, a grand French-style tree-lined boulevard, I noticed a sign for an art gallery inside a lovely mansion, so I ventured inside.

The gallery was dedicated to the work of the Vietnamese artist LeBaDang and was home to more than 300 of his works. Once again, I was the only visitor, which was great as I could spend as long as I wanted looking at the pieces without having to jostle with other visitors for position. The pieces were really good; modern and striking. I hadn’t heard of LeBaDang before, but I enjoyed his work and was glad I’d stumbled across the gallery.

I carried on down Le Loi and saw a sign for the Hue Cultural Museum, so again I decided to pop inside. The museum was teeny with only a few rooms open to the public. It was quite random with one display of attractive ceramics and another of musical instruments. It was okay, but there wasn’t much to see and what there was to see was again a bit odd, and I didn’t come away feeling as though I’d learnt anything of note about Hue.

My walking tour of Hue turned out to be unexpected and not at all like I’d planned, but I really enjoyed it. My favourite travel experiences are often random ones where you accidentally stumble upon interesting little places you had no idea existed and this day turned out to be no exception.

 

Hue – Day 1

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Vietnam’s old imperial capital Hue is home to an enormous citadel, which counts the Imperial City within its walls, and the delightfully-named Perfume River, which cuts a swathe through the city centre. The historical city’s a fascinating place with its mix of modern, traditional and French-style buildings, while the citadel has an impressive feel to it, despite its faded glory.

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On my first day in Hue, I was up bright and early to visit the citadel and the Imperial City. The citadel, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, is surrounded by a moat and to get to it you have to cross a narrow stone bridge, then pass through a gate in the huge walls. Walking into the citadel, which was built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805, I was struck by its size. It’s massive and its enormous stone walls and watch towers (topped with the Vietnamese flag, above) create a forbidding impression. Nowadays, it looks tired and worn, but it must have been an imposing sight during the imperial era.

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We made our way over to the Imperial City, across another moat, passing through the wonderful Ngo Mon Gate (above) to get inside. Beyond the gate, we found ourselves in a large, pretty courtyard with a couple lotus ponds. Then in front of us, across the courtyard, was the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is home to the Thai Hoa Palace, the Royal Theatre, a couple of halls and extensive gardens, and it got its name because, during the imperial period, the emperor was the only man who was allowed to enter it. We had a good look around the Forbidden City, taking in all the sights, as well as a few small exhibitions.

Large parts of the Imperial City are sadly in ruins and this was especially evident in the Forbidden City. But it’s in the process of being restored and the parts that have been restored, such as the theatre, are incredible and give you a glimpse into how stunning the entire complex must have been during the 19th century. I’d love to come back when the place has been fully restored because I suspect it will be an incredible sight.

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After the Forbidden City, we then moved onto a series of temples in another part of the Imperial City, the Mieu and Hung Mieu temples, which pay tribute to past emperors and imperial family members, as well as a splendid pavillion across the courtyard from the Mieu temple.

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After spending a couple of hours exploring the faded glamour of the Imperial City, we made our way down the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. There we climbed a series of steep steps to reach the pagoda, which turned out to be a tall tiered octagonal tower. It was an attractive building and after stopping to take a few pictures, we carried on exploring the rest of the complex.

While wandering around the grounds, one of the guys who worked there drew my attention to a series of rock and bonsai gardens on tables, which were unusual but charming. He also pointed out a blue car in which a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death in Saigon on 11 June 1963 in protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s discrimination of Buddhists.

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After a spot of lunch, we headed out to the tomb of Tu Duc. The tomb is one of a series of seven royal tombs dedicated to the Nguyen emperors in the countryside surrounding Hue. We opted to visit the tomb of Tu Duc, who ruled between 1848 and 1883, which is said to be one of the most magnificent. The complex was built in 1864-1867 and is home to 50 buildings, as well as the tombs of the Empress Le Thien Anh and Emperor Kien Phuc, who ruled in 1884.

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The complex was vast with a series of walled courtyards and monuments, and a large lake in the middle. Much like the Imperial City, the tomb was worn and shabby, but it must have been an impressive sight during its heyday. Parts of the complex were being restored during my visit and like the Imperial City, I’d love to see it again when it’s been fully refurbished. The most notable sight for me was the square stone and brick pavilion with a giant stele (above) inside. Apparently, the stele is the largest in Vietnam and features a self-critical autobiography by Emperor Tu Duc.

I really enjoyed my first day in Hue, exploring Vietnam’s imperial past. I didn’t know much about Vietnam’s history before my trip as I couldn’t find any books that discussed anything other than the war, so I was really interested to learn more about the country’s past. I’ll have to make another trip to Hue in 20 years’ time to see the sights once they’ve been fully restored as I suspect they’ll be somewhat spectacular and it would be interesting to compare the before and after.

 

The mouse that pooped – Hanoi to Hue by train

imag1622-2To get from Hanoi to Hue, I took an overnight train. It was the first time I’d spent the night on a train, and while I wasn’t expecting the grand splendour of the Orient Express, I did expect it to be a little swisher… and less eventful.

The train was huge and our carriage contained a series of cabins, a wash area and a couple of toilets. All the first-class ticket holders were assigned a cabin, which could hold up to four people. There were no male-only or female-only cabins, so everyone was mixed together, and if you were travelling in a group, you weren’t necessarily with your friends.

The cabins were teeny and super sparse with two metal bunk beds on either side with thin mattresses, a thin pillow and a sheet. Between the bunk beds was a metal table. There were no ladders to get up to the top bunk and no locks on the door. So much for the luxury of first class. These were nothing like the overnight compartments you see in the movies, and about as far removed from the cabin Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint shared in North by Northwest as you can imagine.

Out in the corridor, a woman with her toddler daughter was having to sleep in a broom cupboard beside the wash basins, surrounded by cardboard boxes that the adorable little girl kept throwing onto the floor of the carriage.

In our teeny cabin, my three other cabin-mates and I squeezed ourselves in, artfully manoeuvring ourselves and our luggage inside. I was relieved to find I’d been allocated the bottom bunk – thankfully no pitiful attempts to haul my ass up onto the top bunk for me.

My cabin-mates and I sat down to a cramped takeaway meal, chatting about our lives and travel experiences to while away the time as random people we didn’t know popped their heads inside our cabin to say hello. It wasn’t long before we heard about the mouse in a cabin a few doors down from us, apparently someone had spotted the rodent running across the floor.

We checked our cabin, but it appeared to be mouse-free and I thought no more about it until I went to sleep. With no lock on the door, I curled myself around my valuables as I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them lying around at the foot of my bed.

I’d just started to nod off, when I felt something brush past my head. I yelped and leapt out of bed at breakneck speed towards the door (how I didn’t wake my cabin-mates is beyond me). Cowering by the door, my heart pounding, I switched on my phone’s torch and ran it past my bed. Nothing. I flashed the light over the floor and surrounding area. Again, nothing.

Calmer, I got back into bed, telling myself it was just my imagination and that I’d been spooked by the news of the mouse further down the carriage. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

The following morning I was up and awake before dawn. For some reason, my cabin-mates and I mistakenly thought we were getting off the train at 6am (turned out to be closer to 8.30am). I was super tired and blurry eyed, and I drowsily got dressed and ready for the day, marvelling at the beautiful sight of the sun rising across the Vietnamese countryside.

As the time wore on, we realised we weren’t getting off the train any time soon so I settled in to read my book. It was only then that I realised my bed, around the outline of where my body had lain, was covered in small little droplets. So was the table and the floor.

Turned out we’d had a visitor (or two) during the night. The mouse that brushed my head wasn’t a figment of my imagination after all…