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Central coast of Vietnam - Hoi An and Hue

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 15 July 2008 | Views [2358]

The journey to Hoi An, central coast of Vietnam

The train journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An was, well, uncomfortable. No sleeper trains were operating that day (if they do at all), so I had a seat in a standard carriage departing at 7pm. The journey was about 12 hours.

That the journey would be uncomfortable was apparent from the moment I stepped into the carriage. I had expected at least cushioned seats. But oh no, instead there were wooden benches back-to-back on each side of the carriage. The benches were a bit like the type you would find in a garden, except they could only seat 2 people and they had a high back. I squeezed myself into my seat, and prepared myself mentally for the journey.

As the train got going, train staff were bussing carts down the gangways selling drinks, snacks and dinner on the train. As I had not brought any food with me, and I was very hungry, I reluctantly pushed myself to try the 'dinner'. With a few gesticulations, the staff scooped a porridge-like substance from a metal cylinder into a polystyrene container and handed it to me. I was so famished that I gulped down the bland, lumpy meal. I also tried a boiled egg, served with salt - which was surpirisingly nice.

As the evening progressed, half of the people (all of whom were locals) migrated from their seats to the dirty carriage floor to sleep. Some of those had had the foresight to bring a bamboo mat to lie on. 'Sardines in a tin can' does not quite bring to life how packed the carriage was - with arms and legs flailing across the floors and benches. But these tired sould had the rest disturbed everytime one of te staff attempted to come down teh gangway with their trolley of snacks.

And what about me? As you can imagine, most (in fact, nearly all) SE Asians are small and petite. They take up about 1/3 of the space of a Westerner (and I include myself in the Western bracket due to my size). I knew that sleeping would be difficult in these circumstances, so I tried to stay awake for as long as I can by reading my book - Catfish and Mandala - Newsweek, and the Economist. But eventually, I could hold out no longer.

I contorted myself into a number of positions throughout the night, in an effort to find a position where I could keep my back and head reasonably aligned, and rest my head on something. I sat up with my head against the wall, but the vibrations of the train made this quite uncomfortable. The most comfortable of the uncomfortable positions was lying with my back and head on the bench (just about - my head would occasionally slip off the end) and my legs vertically up the wall. In essence, it was an L-shape position. I wrapped my krama (the small bandana which I bought in Cambodia) around my head to shield my eyes from the light, whist the knot at the back cushioned my head slightly from the wooden bench.

Needless to say, it was a very restless night, with the constant concern that I would not know where to get off the train.

Having arrived at Danang train station, I caught a taxi directly to the neighbouring town of Hoi An. I checked myself into Phuoc An Hotel, which I picked straight out of the Lonely Planets Guide. I knew that this would probably be a bad financial decision, since the price of any place named in the LP Guide tends to rise immediately after the LP Guide is published, but I was in need of a good bed and some comfort after my journey (and still being annoyed that my easyrider tour did not go as I had planned).

Hoi An

I spent about 5 days in Hoi An in total. It is a beautiful, sedate and historic town set alongside the Thu Bon River. In the old quarter of Hoi An, the most visited part by tourists, the streets are lined with fine historic buildings. Many of these buildings house tailors and art galleries - I certainly made the most of both. With respect to the tailors, I had decided beforehand to buy 1 or 2 suits (depending on the quality of the fabrics). Suits out here are so much cheaper than London, it's great! They were ready in one day and after having them fitted, I was happy enough to go for 1 more, plus a few extras (i.e. shirts and trousers).

I also decided to do an evening cooking course. It was an impromptu decision as a course was about to start at the place where I had stopped in the afternoon for a coffee. The cooking course was great for the most part. We went to the market, discussed the various ingredients that would go into our foods, as well as the fruits and veg's. Then on to a boat, for a ride down the river to a Restaurant where our cooking class would commence.

My dishes were okay (alright, I messed up quite alot), and my vegetable decorating skills were awful (this I knew already from previous attempts to do so).

The best part of the course was the group - there was a newly-wed couple in the 40's from New Zealand (but the husband had Irish blood), and two Irish ladies in their late 30's. But the group as a whole was so much fun - undoubtedly the most I had laughed in a very long time - particularly the NZ husband. We spent the evening after the course and the next day in each other's company, before the others headed down to Nha Trang (where I had just come from).

4km east of Hoi An (a 20 minute bicycle ride) is the stunning Cua Dai Beach - probably the best I have been to so far. I spent a day here on a sun-lounger, my sketchbook in hand (although still wet from the easyrider tour).

My departure from Hoi An was delayed slightly by the fact that all transportation (buses, planes and trains) for the day I intended to depart and the day afterwards was sold out. I verified this at a number of travel agents. So, I had little choice but to relax in Hoi An for a bit longer. Fortunately, a vacancy opened up on one of the buses on the second day, so I was able to move on to Hue, which is further north up the coast.


Hue, like Hoi An, is a city with history. You feel the history just walking around - and in the case of Hue, it is more apparent because the town is divided by a river (called the 'Perfume River' - named after a scented shrub that is supposed to grow at its source). On the south side of the river, the city is like any other in Vietnam. It is in the north, that the contrast becomes apparent. Set just north of the river is an Imperial City that housed generations of the country's most powerful emperors.

On approaching the Imperial City from the south (as was decreed by Chinese custom), one is confronted with thick outer walls, 7 -10m thick, along with moats, canals and towers. Over the moat, a pair of gates pierce the outer walls. From just behind the gates a flag tower rises to the sky - supposedly the tallest in Vietnam. And just inside the walls are two groups of massive cannons (the significance of these I cannot remember).

The Imperial City has been damaged by war, incessant conflicts and floods. But those buildings that have survived have remained in fairly good shape, or at least, the UNESCO restoration project has appeared to have restored the buildings faithfully to the former glory

The most impressive of these buildings in my opinion was the Royal Reading Pavillion, one of the buildings that has been restored.

It was here in Hue that I finally decided to take the plunge for the first time...I was going to ride a motorbike. Well, not the normal motorbike that you tend to find in England. The motorbikes in common usage here are kind of a cross between a scooter and a motorbike. There are two options, either manual or automatic: a manual has an automatic clutch but the gears are changed manually, whereas an automatic has automatic clutch and gears. Since this was the first time that I was going to be attempting riding a motorbike, I decided to start with baby steps: the 'automatic' which requires no fiddling - just squeeze the accelerator and off you go.

It was actually astonishingly easy. The motorbike, much like a bicycle, tends to balance itself once you build up enough velocity.

So off I went, in search of the tombs of several emperors that lie between 4-10km from the city.

It was good fun zipping through the countryside in search of tombs - although some of the dirt tracks proved to be more challenging than I expected for a first-timer. I will also confess that I did have a particularly bad 'crash' at one point. Not sure if the proper label for it is a 'crash' if it only involved me toppling over. Anyway, I lost control when I was trying to come to a quick stop (the sense of urgency was created by a child on the roadside who guessed where I wanted to go and told me that I had gone passed the tomb). Anyway, into the dirt my bike and my face went (causing some minor scarring of my hand and a sprained wrist). Oh well, it was a lesson learnt. Now I know to apply the rear brake, not the front brake, when maneouvering at slow speeds.

Random group of youths outside of the tombs. They invited me to sit down, drink with them, and eat something (I didn't want to ask or know what it was).

Random group of youths outside of the tombs. They invited me to sit down, drink with them, and eat something (I didn't want to ask or know what it was).

Tags: cooking, hoi an, hue, tailors

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