Last week’s episode concluded with the overnight train to Hue, so now the story continues from our arrival at the railway station. If it were up to me I would prefer to rhyme Huế with the word blue to match the city’s quiet, gentle vibe… but it’s not up to me and Huế is actually pronounced as ‘hway’, which at least rhymes with the word yay.
I really liked it here. It had a certain feeling which hasn’t quite been replicated anywhere else on our travels, no doubt due to the fact that we were staying within the small central nineteenth-century citadel without any tall buildings and – at least according to our AirBnb hosts – where hotels are not allowed. A large chunk of the citadel is taken up by the Imperial City. This is where Vietnam’s emperors ruled the country until 1945 when power was handed over to Ho Chi Minh’s new republican government and the capital was moved from Huế to Hanoi. It was rather heartening to learn that after his abdication, the last emperor lived until 1997 and some of his descendants remain in the city to this day. You rarely see a revolution which doesn’t end in a violent purge.
Anyway, we walked over the bridge from the station and into the citadel, catching a glimpse across the river of the more modern, built-up area of Huế. Our home backed onto a large grassy square with a brick structure designed (allegedly) for royals to be able to pray for rain. It is currently well-used by lots of local children, the older ones playing football while the youngest pair opting for the classic ‘fight each other with sticks’ game instead. Vietnam as a whole has felt like a very young country with lots of children around but we had particularly nice interactions with children in Huế, from the kids who waved to us through the open door of their school (still studying, long after sunset, at 8.30pm) to the young boy who walked up to me in a bookshop and asked if it was OK for us to talk for a bit. And in general the streets of Huế just felt very relaxed, with many lakes dotted around everywhere in addition to the Perfume River.
That said, there is not so much to do that you need to spend very much time here. We could have gone to the Royal Tombs which are at the top of many tourist lists and I’m sure are interesting, but we satisfied ourselves with a half-hour walk to the Chùa Thiên Mụ (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady) instead. It was fine. I mean, it’s a perfectly decent pagoda, but we were very hot and sweaty after the walk there and the best part was getting into an air-conditioned Grab to go back home. We didn’t pass anyone else walking, obviously, although many passing drivers looked at us strangely.
The Imperial City was a more successful visit which we left to the last day. I might have appreciated a more general outline of Vietnam’s history – this is perhaps what you pay a tour guide for – but there were plenty of interesting snippets amidst the remains of the buildings and the grounds. (Huế was heavily damaged during the Vietnam War, particularly during the Battle of Huế in 1968.) Afterwards, we took a brief look at a display of American planes and tanks nearby. This was the underwhelming climax to a wild goose chase across Google Maps where I tried to find the old airport listed as #9 in one of those ‘top things to do’ articles which I’m refusing to link to here. If you’ve found this blog trying to do the same thing, then let me save you some time: it doesn’t exist. And the clue is that the article is illustrated with a photo of the international airport which is very much in use.
The legitimately great (and 100% real) discovery of Huế was salt coffee, which continues the trend of unusual Vietnamese coffee creations started by the egg coffee in Hanoi. The name is slightly clickbaity, since the salt is more than offset by the sweet caramel taste, but it was delicious all the same. Food-wise, Huế was out of the zone where all of the menus can be expected to exist in English, but we did still manage to try some of the dumplings recommended by our hosts.
On Thursday evening we caught the two and a half hour train from Huế to Da Nang, the nearest station to the popular tourist destination of Hoi An which is a further 45-minute drive away. The train was not awful – and ran exactly on schedule, like all of the other trains in Vietnam have – but was somewhat grottier than the other trains we’ve taken in Asia and at one point a rodent scurried over Randi’s foot. We spent the rest of the ride resting with our legs away from the floor, including during the brief period when all the lights went off and it felt that an Agatha Christie murder mystery might be afoot, until the sweetly-phrased announcement of “ladies and gentlemen, the train has taken you to Da Nang”.
In general, though, I must say that the chaotic image of Vietnam’s railways which I had picked up online beforehand couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything has been straightforward and well-organised and it should be noted that the online ticketing system here actually works, unlike in Thailand where ‘real’ online booking is not actually available and the gap is filled by efficient third-parties who take your order, buy the tickets in person on your behalf and then set up offices near every train station for ticket collection. So please don’t let one mouse (or rat, we’re not sure) put you off the trains in Vietnam. I also suspect the sleeper berths on that train would have been nicer.
We had heard many good things about Hội An, and I suspect most people would prefer it to Huế. The historic Old Town by the Thu Bồn River is exceptionally pretty, especially in the evening when everything is lit up by lanterns. It also has the big advantage of being a couple of degrees cooler, with periodic rainfall which was incredibly welcome and refreshing.
It also has a much more touristy vibe, which I guess suited me just fine when it was dinnertime and we could take a break from Vietnamese food in favour of cheese-filled burgers or lamb kormas (both excellent).
We didn’t spend a ton of time in the town itself, though, opting instead to spend our full day in Hội An on a Heaven & Earth cycling tour. After our last bike ride Randi had to convince me that this was a good idea, but this time we were part of a group being led through the countryside by some wonderful guides who were also a bunch of prank-loving jokesters. We cycled over 23km of very flat (though not always very smooth) paths, moving in and out of tiny villages, and really loved the experience. One of my favourite parts of seeing this ‘real Vietnam’ was passing through a field with a loudspeaker playing the local news. We also saw some local crafts including mat weaving, noodle making and boat construction, while at lunch I upset the American couple by slating Thomas Jefferson. (Well, to be fair, I don’t think I actually upset them. They were a nice pair of elderly anti-war types from Oregon. But they had not yet come over to team Hamilton.)
The trains in Vietnam are numbered, with SE1-4 being the newest and nicest. Our first sleeper in Vietnam had been a four-berth on the SE1 but our overnight to Ho Chi Minh City was booked on the older SE7, the same train we had taken between Huế and Hội An with the rodent. That honestly wasn’t the main reason we decided to switch trains at the last minute… we mostly realised that we preferred the timings of the SE1, and the nicer train was a bonus. But after confirming that we could get a 90% refund on our original ticket, we then discovered that the only beds left on the SE1 was the special two-berth VIP room. So, y’know, we just had to… 😉
Splurging on the VIP option turned out to be an incredibly smart decision and turned our longest (16-hour!) train journey of the trip into yet another highlight of Vietnam. Although we had no problems with our fellow passengers on the four-bed sleeper, being able to lock our door, control the lights and spread out our stuff on our own schedule felt extra secure and very luxurious. At least two separate people walked past our room and said “wow!”. The beds were especially comfortable for a sleeper train and we were also treated to a free dinner, albeit one heavy on the meat so Randi had to fallback to her back-up dinner plans. Overall the journey time flew by and we even managed to get a bit of blogging done. I am full of admiration for Vietnam’s railways and a little sad that we have to downgrade back to buses for the rest of our route through Southeast Asia.