Despite its wealth of historical monuments and glorious vistas, central Vietnam in May is an act of self-flagellating masochism.
But let me begin this account from the beginning, with everyone’s favourite travelling trope – a crazy bus story.
We took a sleeper bus from Dalat round the mountains down to Danang, with the rain pounding the windows and the night sky lit by lightning, like an epileptic’s nightmare.
During the night, the bus came to a halt on a twisting mountain road. Up ahead, vehicle floods lit a rabble of people inspecting some obstacle in the way. I needed to stretch my legs so I got out to have a nose at what was going on.
Stretched across the road was the trunk of a tree, to my right still connected to its creaking, split roots, while on the left somehow wedged under a huge log.
Either side of the obstacle were maybe 50 Vietnamese men, and 50 Russians in shorts and plastic ponchos. Each group had conflicting opinions on how to resolve the situation; in fact, the only thing they had in common was their inability to communicate their ideas.
So while the Russians wanted to turn the log clockwise to roll it off the tree, the Vietnamese were jumping up and down on the trunk near the roots, vainly hoping to rip the last fibres away.
When a Vietnamese chap brought out a chisel and hammer, I thought maybe we might get somewhere, albeit slowly. But the Russians shouted him down in favour of smashing the tree with a sledgehammer. This just compressed the timber further, conversely tightening the bonds in the wood, strengthening it.
After about half an hour of this painfully ineffective Soviet gun show, the blessed sound of chainsaws could be heard revving on the Vietnamese side. Someone had joined the traffic jam with their forestry tools, thank heavens.
Meanwhile, a lone Englishman in flip-flops and a vest stood in the rain gazing at thunderless clouds, bursting with white fire, illuminating the scene like a broken celestial street lamp.
Thankfully, we were soon back on the road and the next morning emerged yawning from the bus in downtown Danang.
As the main hub of central Vietnam, Danang is a sprawling city with an elegant touch. From the Dragon Bridge spanning the Han River to the giant lotus flowers floating down it, the city exudes artistic flair and a relaxed atmosphere.
The nightlife is sprightly, if obnoxiously loud, and the place is awash with coffee shops and trendy restaurants. Just walking around the river is a pleasant jaunt, with interesting modern sculptures dotted along either bank, lit at night in a multitude of colours.
Outside the city, there’s a less-than-impressive beach that spans from Danang to Hoi An, and ends in the north with the Monkey Mountain peninsula (known as Son Tra).
Son Tra-p more like
We hired a bike and set off in the scorching sun towards the summit of Son Tra. Now, I was riding a scooter through a Vietnamese city for the first time, which was interesting. Sorry, did I say interesting? I meant PETRIFYING. No one looks in their mirrors, no one obeys the road rules, and no one apparently gives a shit who lives and who dies.
Take a breath – once you escape the suicidal streets and head up the coast, the roads clear and the view opens up to the boat-specked ocean. The beach is littered with the strange bowl-like squid-fishing vessels the locals use, while the larger trawlers bob in the bay. Meanwhile, the coastal road of the peninsula climbs its circumference, leading to remote hillside resorts or small log-cabin restaurants.
We stopped at one such establishment for some lunch, but found a menu devoid of English and a staff likewise. We pointed at what looked like breaded calamari, as it seemed the safest option. We were served fried squid, whole – guts and all – and spent a gruelling 45 minutes pain-stakingly removing the innards and scraping away its undefecated faeces.
Still, it was enough to keep us going as we continued uphill, passing the InterContinental Peninsula resort and struggling up as high as we could towards the summit. Our little motorbike didn’t have the oomph to make it to the top – at least not with two passengers – so we had to return, a little sullen we’d not made it.
The Hoi An gang
Down the road in Hoi An, we were meeting friends from London – Tiff, Tim, Ian and Danielle – who were on a three-week vacation visiting another friend, Miriam, who lives and works in Hoi An as a wedding planner.
Did I mention we went to Hoi An twice?
The first time we went to Hoi An – about three weeks earlier – we stayed in the town, visiting Miriam and her beach neighbourhood by bicycle. The roads are flat, but fairly busy, and riding in the sunshine was arduous, to say the least.
Thankfully the beach is lined with thatched parasols, under which we enjoyed a bottle of wine, cao lau noodles and banh xeo crispy crepes. Cowering in the shade like vampires on holiday, we noticed the domestic tourists do the same, not arriving until sunset, when hundreds descend for noisy beach-barbecues and night-shrouded fun-mongering.
After another bottle of wine and an ill-advised procession of cocktails, we cycled home in the dark and, inevitably, found ourselves completely lost. Our guesthouse was down an obscured alley about six miles away, hard to find in broad daylight let alone at night. So we dodged traffic for two hours trying to find it.
The Old Town is nice, if a little contrived. It felt a bit like a romance theme park, gaudy and trite, with lanterns hanging from every possible structure and hawkers targeting couples to buy a rose. It is pretty, I’ll admit, but almost nauseatingly so. Like Melaka with its sickening pink rickshaws.
The second time we went to Hoi An, we lapped up the luxury, visiting Tim, Ian, Tiff and Danielle at the tasty hotel Miriam had wangled them on a discount. Our evenings with them were a blast, hitting the fancy-pants cocktails at Mango Mango or catching the last rays of Sol from the beach veranda at Miriam’s favourite bar. It was with a heavy heart that we hurried to Hue.
The four hours we’d spent in Hue on our initial journey south had been fruitless, though tantalising. We’d walked the wrong way from the bus station and rather than exploring the Imperial Citadel, we’d wandered around dusty streets to the north. We did find a tree fluttering with a thousand butterflies, and Swarana ate a weird coconut that was filled with translucent jelly, so it wasn’t a total waste.
This second visit was much more successful.
However, it began with more sweat than you can shake from a saturated brow. We took the train from Danang to Hue, but at the station we found the train was one carriage short – namely ours. I’m not sure if it was routine, but we’d bought the tickets on the day, about an hour before departure, so surmised they’d over-sold capacity.
The train attendants and technicians told us in no certain terms to get off the train and wait. They then unclipped the locomotive and fetched an extra carriage. When we boarded it, we could only assume they’d fetched it from Hell’s inferno. A thermometer inside read 46º centigrade.
Sweltering is too tame a term. Grotesque hyperbole could not adequately describe the torrents of sweat that poured from our pores. I think I was even sweating from my fingernails.
The ride is beautiful – but bollocks to that. It was so hot, I couldn’t think, let alone compose a decent picture. I tried looking out the window a couple of times, but it was even hotter in the corridor than in the cabin, so had to go back to sit down, praying the A/C would get fixed before my eyeballs became so lubricated with sweat they popped out and hung from their sockets like nipple tassels.
Dehydrated and delirious, we arrived in Hue, otherwise safely.
Hue is a nice place, as long as you know how to handle the rickshaw riders and the tour touts and the heavy-handed hawkers that haunt the streets day and night. The city’s history as the old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty makes it popular with domestic and foreign tourists alike, and there’s no shortage of local guides hoping to take you round the sights.
But we’d been living a little beyond our means since meeting up with so many friends, so we opted to guide ourselves. Of course, this meant explaining to every man in the street that, thanks for the offer of a ride, but no, we actually prefer to walk around in the blazing heat all day. We just like it, ok?!
I won’t go on about the peaceful tranquility of the Citadel’s ruins, nor the pleasant rise of nature over a once-bustling human stronghold.
There are old regal buildings, ancient gates and quiet courtyards, leading to dragon statues and sculpted gardens. It’s beautiful and calming, even in the summer heat.
But take an umbrella, yeah? Don’t worry about looking like a pillock. Just take one.
Meanwhile, back in town, I ate a giant birds’ nest. Hue-style crispy noodles are quite something. A massive cake of crispy noodles is plonked in front of you with a seemingly meagre portion of beef and sauce poured into its centre. But as the sauce seeps into the noodles, you’re left with a fantastic soft but sometimes crunchy explosion of yumbo.
One of my favourite foods in Vietnam, it were.
Anyway – that was our convoluted exploration of Vietnam over. We took a bus to Hanoi and boarded a flight to Bangkok, and to northern Thailand beyond. The end of our trip was drawing near, and no elephants had yet been tormented. This, of course, had to change.
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