When we were in the UK, planning our trip and deciding where to go, my brother Andrew told us that we had to go and visit the Citadel in Hué, the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty and one of the seminal locations in the Vietnam War. A couple of months ago we received an online message from Andrew saying that he had managed to secure a few days of holiday, and would be coming out to see us in Vietnam! After 4 months away from the UK, friends and family, we were really looking forward to seeing him – especially with his visit being just a couple of weeks before Christmas.
We based ourselves in Da Nang for the duration of Andrews stay, the largest city in central Vietnam. It wasn’t somewhere we had originally planned to visit, and we had expectations of a drab, soulless city. This couldn’t have been much further from the reality; Da Nang is a buzzing, cosmopolitan city on the move, and feels far more authentic than some of the nearby tourist honeypots. The city is best viewed at night, when the bridges and skyscrapers give a dazzling light display. Our highlight was the newly built ‘Dragon Bridge’, a spectacular suspension bridge shaped like a dragon, complete with head and tail. On Saturday nights the road closes for 15 minutes whilst the head shoots huge fireballs and sprays water!
We also really enjoyed the food in Da Nang, and managed to cover the entire spectrum – from cheap and basic pho in the huge Com Market, to ‘Vietnamese tapas’ (picking a load of dishes at random from the Vietnamese menu and sharing) in local restaurants, to sumptuous lamb shank and rioja at a posh western restaurant. Andrew was extremely generous, and treated us to a room at the four star Northern Hotel, quite a step up from our usual accommodation. We didn’t feel the need to ask reception the usual questions of ‘is there hot water?’ and ‘does the room have a window?’.
Hoi An is a much visited town nearby to Da Nang, famous for its pretty old quarter and its many tailor shops – apparently over 600! Andrew was keen to have a couple of suits made, and I decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up, as did Charlotte who opted for a new winter coat. After a good recommendation on where to go, we were measured up (and touched up in Andrews case!) by a very funny pair of Vietnamese ladies. We chose our fabrics, linings, style and any customisations we wanted, and returned the next day for final adjustments to be made. We were expecting half finished tailors mock ups just for sizing purposes, but were amazed to find that they had completely finished our clothes overnight. We were really happy with the results, though my cashmere suit and flip flops proved to be an odd combo.
Whilst in Hoi An we met a softly spoken old man called Mr Trung, who owns a seafood restaurant by the river. He runs half day trips to his village, where he shows you local crafts and teaches you to cook traditional Vietnamese food. And so it was that we found ourselves on the jetty one morning with fishing rods in our hands, being instructed by Mr Trung. Despite there clearly being lots of fish moving in the water, they were wise to our tricks and evaded us successfully. Luckily Mrs Trung had been to the fish market that morning, and so we weren’t going to go hungry. After a visit to the pottery village, where we each spun a unidentifiable object on a foot powered potters wheel, we retired to the Trung family house for our cooking class. It was brilliant to be shown how to cook spring rolls, fish and noodles in the traditional style, and we enjoyed tasting the fruits of our labours. Charlotte and I particularly enjoyed doing some cooking, having eaten out 3 meals a day for several months now!
In our opinion Hoi An is definitely worth a visit, particularly at night when the old quarter is closed to motor vehicles and the streets are lit up by coloured lanterns. However to some extent it is a victim of its own success, and there are now a lot of tourists, who are amply catered for.
Our final stop was Hué, the ancient royal city which was heavily bombed by the Americans during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The day of our visit was grey and drizzling, and whilst Charlotte and I whined about the cold (a frosty 20 degrees) Andrew was unperturbed. The Citadel is the name of the old walled city on the north bank of the Perfume River, surrounded by a moat and presided over by the iconic Flag Tower. Within the citadel is the Imperial Enclosure – a second walled and moated complex which only the Emperors and their concubines were allowed to enter. Unfortunately, a large number of the original buildings were destroyed, but the buildings and ruins which remain are fascinating to explore. There is a startling contrast between the ornate beauty of the Emperors palace, and the bullet holes and destruction from the war.
We returned to Da Nang and the next day, after an early morning swim in the sea, we had to part ways with Andrew who began his 18 hour journey back to the UK. We had a really great 4 days, and packed in as much as possible. Once Andrew left we collapsed in our room and spent a lazy afternoon watching films, exhausted from all the sight seeing! After another couple of nights in Hoi An we are now making our way north to Hanoi, the capital city.