Interesting trip fact: We never actually planned to come to Vietnam on our RTW trip… it was more a “maybe” on our list. However, the more people kept talking about how wonderful the country was, the more intrigued we became… so we soon found ourselves making our way down the Vietnam coastline. When researching places to visit in the country, I came across some interesting cities in Central Vietnam including Hue, Hoi An, and Nha Trang, so we made plans to hit them on the way down to Ho Chi Minh / Saigon (in the south).
Below is a summary of our experiences in the three cities we visited in central Vietnam.
If you are a history buff, then Hue—which is pronounced: “Who-A”—is not to be missed. The city was Vietnam’s national capital until 1945, and it served as the political, cultural and religious center of Vietnam under the control of the Nguyen Dynasty. During the Vietnam War, Hue’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a very vulnerable position. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the city suffered considerable damage, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings, as well as the massacre of around 3,000 people at Hue by the communist forces.
One of the main attractions in Hue is the Citadel, which is the complex that used to house the government when the city was the capital. We spent a day around the large complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, and galleries. The damage suffered by the old bombings was extremely evident here, as some areas of the Citadel are now only empty fields, bits of walls, and an explanatory plaque. But there were quite a few buildings that still were standing, and it was interesting to explore the area and read about the history. It also was a HOT HOT day (mid to high 90s and humid), so it was a bit of a slow-going afternoon for us.
Besides the citadel, we also visited one of the MANY Emperor tombs in the area: Tu Duc Tomb. Hue is home to over six different massive tombs, built by past emperors that—as it states in some history books—had nothing else to do with their time than build themselves elaborate tombs… hah! And ELABORATE they certainly are! Tu Duc Tomb was a sprawling complex around a lake, with wooden pavilions and tombs and temples dedicated to wives and favored courtesans. Pretty excessive for burial grounds, don’t you think? In addition, we visited the Thien Mu Pagoda in town, and were lucky to be there at a time when the Buddhist monks were singing and performing some kind of religious ceremony. We rented a motorbike two of the days we were there (again, for $5/day), as it made it SO much easier to jet around the city to the places we wanted to visit… but Hue was a LOT more crowded than it had been on Cat Ba Island… and the traffic became a bit stressful at times! [Click here to see James and I riding a motorbike in crazy Hue traffic.]
In all, we spent six days in Hue (June 4-10)—but only that long because James got some awful stomach sickness and was wiped out for several days (after a day or two of antibiotics, though, he immediately began to improve.) Hue wasn’t really my favorite city, and I probably could have skipped it and been fine with that, but if you are a history buff and enjoy exploring ancient Government buildings and Emperor tombs, then allow yourself 3-4 days to see everything in the city.
Hoi An is one of the more popular destinations for tourists, and we could definitely see why: it’s a unique, charismatic, ancient trading town that is an exceptionally well-preserved and has a charm like no other! The city itself is actually recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so that’s reason enough to want to check it out.
The streets themselves in Hoi An are narrow and full of yellow colored ancient shops and restaurants, often with beautiful multi-colored lanterns strung across the walkway. In addition, the town has enforced restrictions around town of NO TRAFFIC—including motorbikes—so you can freely stroll down the quaint town roads without the traffic noise or worry about getting hit by a motorbike (which is a constant concern in most other cities and towns in Vietnam). A small river winds through the downtown area, and at night it is very lively with music, people, performances, and boat rides. For a small charge, you can purchase a floating paper lantern, light the candle inside, make a wish, and release it into the water and watch it float down the river.
We spent four days in Hoi An (June 10-14) and really soaked up the culture, and in turn, had many wonderful experiences and lasting memories. We took a cooking class at a local restaurant called “Green Mango” which was not only extremely educational, but resulted in a very tasty meal as well! Most cooking classes you take in Hoi An sometimes have up to 25+ people, but we got lucky at this place and ended up being the ONLY ONES in class on this particular day! So we basically got a “private class” for the price of the normal one—bonus! We also were allowed to
choose five items on the menu of 20+ items that we would like to cook, so we chose prawn and mango spring rolls, smokey eggplant salad, lemongrass marinated chicken, blackened sea bass, and mango crème brule for dessert. Mr. Hai is the owner and chef of the restaurant, and we benefitted from his knowledge and expertise. We started the day by walking through the local market, tasting and smelling herbs and vegetables, and Mr. Hai would point out different seafood and vegetable items and explain how and when to purchase the right types. Back at the restaurant, we began with the food: preparing sauces, putting shrimp on skewers, and rolling spring rolls. After a few hours of the three of us working feverishly to prep the meal, we sat down and were rewarded with a wonderful spread. SO much food that we actually had to take some back with us to our hotel! I think what was most interesting to me about this class, though, is all the VERY different spices and mixes he used, which gave us an insight into how Vietnamese food is prepared compared to others.
While we were in Hoi An, we also spent time at a tailor shop, where James was fitted for a CUSTOM tailored suit! Hoi An is known as one of the cheapest places in the world to get good quality custom clothing. For a mere $250 USD or so and only two days of work, you can actually get a suit completely custom made from head to toe, including the fabric choice inside and out. After James’ initial fabric consultation, suit style choice, and thorough measurements, he went back to the shop two more times for fittings and alterations. The result in the end: A gorgeous gray custom-fitted suit, a custom-fitted shirt, and nice tie: ALL for only $250! James says the suit and shirt really “fits like a glove” and he’s never looked or felt better in a suit. Not bad for something that normally costs from $1,000 to $15,000 anywhere else in the world!
Other things we did in Hoi An: strolled the quaint streets and window-shopped, meandered through the many art stores admiring the beautiful Vietnamese paintings on display, rented a motorbike one day and went to the beach, and one night we actually found a restaurant that had Mexican food—tacos and nachos—that actually tasted pretty GREAT, which was VERY EXCITING!! (I’ve really missed Mexican food more than anything on this trip, but most places in other countries that we’ve tried have pretty horrible food which tastes nothing like REAL Mexican food!)
One of the nights in Hoi An, we decided to indulge in a NICE dinner at a fancier restaurant and got all dressed up (or as dressed up as we can get on our trip with our limited wardrobe), and had a lovely meal: a starter dish of blue cheese wrapped grapes with pecans, fancy fish entrees with potatoes and vegetables, and we each had a drink as well. Note: back home we would normally do this maybe once a month, but this is the FIRST time on our trip in four months that we’ve had a “fancy” meal with an actual appetizer and cocktails as well! After months on end of eating street food, cheap food, and half-effort cooking in ill-equipped kitchens, this was something we DEFINITELY needed, and it was extra nice that we happened to have the whole upstairs of the restaurant with a balcony view all to ourselves! Funny thing is, it “only” cost us around $40 for this elaborate meal, whereas at home a dinner and drinks at a restaurant of the same caliber would have been closer to $100+! After dinner, we strolled along the cute streets of Hoi An, and wandered down to a boat on the river that has been made into a floating “bar” and stopped for a couple drinks. What a nice experience, sitting at a table on a tiny boat, live guitar music playing, and the company of your loved one. It was a wonderful night! [Click here to see a video of us on the “bar boat”]
Overall, Hoi An was one of our favorite cities in Vietnam for its old style charm, culture, food, and overall atmosphere. I highly suggest a visit there if you plan a trip to Vietnam!
People flock to the city of Nha Trang mainly for its beaches, clean sand, clear ocean waters, and mild temperatures year round. However, the forecast for the three days we would be there (June 14-17) was unfortunately CLOUDY, CLOUDY, CLOUDY…. with some rain as well. So instead of hitting the beach, we visited some pretty cool sights around town: Long So’n Pagoda, Po Nagar temple, and Cho Dam Market. The Long So’n Pagoda is home to two large white Buddha statues, which were very intricate, impressive, and just plain cool to see close up in person. While we were in the area, we saw that there was a large bell and a singing monk nearby, so we decided to see what it was all about… we walked over, were told to squat down under the bell and sit on the bench: so we were both basically sitting INSIDE the large bell. The monk took a mallet and “gonged” the bell we were sitting inside and he began to sing. We weren’t really sure what was happening, or what he was
singing, but we assumed we were being given a blessing. Next, we were off to Po Nagar Temple, which resembles the style of the Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat. It was pretty impressive despite its smaller size, and we enjoyed watching a dance show next to the temple with women balancing pots on their heads. [Click here to see a video of the beautiful dancers at Po Nagar Temple.] On our second day in Nha Trang, we visited Cho Dam Market, which is just a huge market with many vendors selling various different goods, from produce and meat to t-shirts and jewelry.
One of the nights when we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant, we happened to randomly stumble across a brochure that listed volunteer opportunities in the area, so we talked to the waitress to inquire further. We found out that we could volunteer on Monday morning to help prepare and hand out free food to the locals and, in addition, we could visit an orphanage in the afternoon to play with the kids and learn more about all of them. Sounds great, sign us up!
That Monday, we got up bright and early and headed to the restaurant (called “Lanterns”) and began dishing out food into small self-serve type Styrofoam containers. One scoop of rice, one spoonful of beef, two squares of cooked egg, and a spoonful of veggies… next! Man, it was SO hot that morning there, I was trying not to drip sweat into the food as we worked tirelessly to prepare the food for the crowd that would soon gather. But it felt good to be helping out the girls there with the prep, and soon would help the people in the community who would come for their free meal. Personally, I was pleased to know the meal being handed out was a “well rounded” one, with veggies and a good amount of protein, and it was humbling to know that the owner of the restaurant actually does this EVERY Monday and the money to fund the food comes from his own pocket! Noon hit, and there was a big crowd gathered outside already, waiting to receive their delicious and free meals. I began to hand them out, one by one, but it was a bit overwhelming, as there was pushing and line skipping starting to begin among the people. It was interesting to see that most of the people who came for the meal didn’t seem or “look” particularly homeless; most of them were actually bicycle taxi drivers around town or those with manual labor jobs in the city. In fact, it occurred to us that we hadn’t really seen many or ANY beggars or homeless people at all in Vietnam so far. We speculated that people with less money here just work lower-paid jobs to make ends meet, rather than sit on the side of the road and wait for a handout… but it could really just be speculation.
Anyway, later on that afternoon, we returned to the same restaurant, as one of the girls there was going to escort us to the orphanage. Apparently this do-good restaurant ALSO supports several local orphanages in the area, and upon request and availability, anybody can volunteer to visit one of them and spend time with the kids. So off we went! The orphanage was actually right in town, and on the way we stopped to get milk boxes (basically boxes of milk, similar to the juice boxes we have in the US) and balloons to bring to the kids. When we arrived, the 15 or so kids were SO intrigued by us, and as soon as James brought out a balloon and started to blow it up, the frenzy started! We only spent about a half hour there, but seeing so many smiles on the kids’ faces were enough to brighten our day! And even though it was a short amount of time, we were also touched by how easily a couple of the kids took to us; grabbing onto our hands and not letting go, or sitting in our laps, arms around us, with that look in their eyes basically saying, “Take me with you.” Awwww… [Click here to see a video of us at the orphanage with the kids.]
The night we were to leave Nha Trang, the skies opened up and DUMPED a ton of rain on the city. Within a matter of only two hours, the streets nearby our hostel were completely FLOODED, with water up to mid-calf height! [Click here to see a video of the flooded streets.] We were scheduled to take an overnight bus to Saigon that night, so a few of the kind workers at our hostel HOISTED our heavy bags on their shoulders and waded through the water to toss them onto the bus for us. How nice! Guess it was good to get out of town at that moment, because who knew if the flooding would continue for the following days thereafter!
In the end, our experience in Nha Trang was really great! . . . although we found it kind of funny that usually the ONLY or main reason people go there is for the beaches, and we barely stepped foot on the sand. Either way, Nha Trang is a suggested city to visit… but be aware that it is also a HUGE backpacker party town, so if you’re not keen to half-dressed Western girls drunkenly stumbling through the streets and large Western men starting bar fights (which we actually witnessed)… then you might want to skip this town!
To see photos from Hue, Vietnam, click here.
To see photos from Hoi An, Vietnam, click here.
To see photos from Nha Trang, Vietnam, click here.