20.03.2014 - 28.03.2014 18 °C
We took the train from Da Nang to the Imperial City of Huế. The train from Da Nang to Huế is one of the prettiest stretches of train travel in all of Vietnam. On one side, steep cliffs falling into ocean and on the other is lush jungle or vast rice fields. The pictures, taken through dirty train windows, do not do the scenery justice, but it was breathtaking.
Huế is the former capital of Vietnam and in roughly in the middle of the country. It was the seat of the Nguyễn Dynasty for 150 years. After checking into our hotel, we rented bikes went off to explore. We went to the market and visited the Ho Chi Min museum (every city has one). There was a group of school children visiting and we got to see them sing the national anthem and visited with them afterwards. They would timidly ask us our name or where we were from, but when we responded, more often than not we would just get giggles and they would run back to their friends to share their new experience.
We also rode out of town a bit to find Ho Quyen, an arena where tigers and elephants would be set to fight each other for the entertainment of the Royal family. We read that they always fixed the fights so that the tigers lost because the elephants represented royalty and had to be seen as the dominant creature. The arena was in remarkable condition and inside the holding cells, there were even claw scratch marks. A guard appeared from nowhere and unlocked the gate so we could go inside. As we stood in the middle of the arena, with the sound of the gate closing behind us, we looked up to the spot where the Emperor would have sat and held our breath a little, waiting for some vicious creature to spring from one of the holding cells.
In the countryside near to Huế are the Tombs of the Emperors of the Nguyễn Dynasty. We decided to take a tour to explore some of the Royal tombs and the Imperial Palace within the walls of the Citadel. Our guide was very passionate about the history of his country and was candid about the war and the divisions between North and South. It was a great insight into one man's experience and we appreciated his honesty. We finished the tour with a boat ride down the Perfume River.
Huế has it own regional food as well and we were able to go to a number of restaurants, from the very fancy to street stalls, to try the local dishes.
From Huế, we travelled on an overnight train up to Hanoi. They call the railway system the reunification express as it runs from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the North. We loved travelling on the train - you could see the country side and just relax.
Hanoi is a fantastic city. We stayed in the Old Quarter and we were able to walk just about anywhere we wanted to go. Every time we went out we would stumble across another fantastic eatery or building or scene. Hanoi, like Hoi An, begged to be photographed.
It is a large city and yet, with the French Quarter and the Old Quarter and the 2 large lakes, it felt intimate and very accessible.
While we found the best way to see Hanoi was simply walking through the streets, there were plenty of museums and monuments to see as well. Given our limited time, we had to pick and choose, but we were able to visit a number of museums and Hoa Lo Prison, referred to as the Hanoi Hilton during the war.
We attended a water puppet show which was wonderful. Water puppets originated out in the rice fields as a way to entertain rural families and there are now a number of long standing and world renowned water puppet troops based in Hanoi. The combination of music and movement really brought the stories to life.
We also went to the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum complex and while we did not get to see inside the mausoleum where the revered leader lies in state, the building itself was impressive. We went to the nearby Ho Chi Min Museum and were surprised at how modern it felt - there were mixed media art installations and large abstract sculpture. It was fascinating to see how they are seeking to make "Uncle Ho's" legacy relevant to a new generation.
Halfway through our time in Hanoi, we travelled to Ha Long Bay and stayed overnight on a junk. The scenery in Ha Long rivals Koh Phi Phi in beauty and we enjoyed wonderful food on the boat. Dave even helped make the spring rolls!
Returning to Hanoi, we booked a street food tour with Mark, the writer of "Stickyrice" http://stickyrice.typepad.com/ , one of the best food blogs out there. I had been reading his blog for awhile, and a friend who had recently been to Vietnam recommended his tour, so away we went. It was a really good tour, although best taken at the beginning of ones trip rather than the end, because part of the joy of it is that he provides recommendations for the rest of Vietnam. We left early in the morning and Mark took us to a number of great spots - soups, noodles, coffee and snacks, all in the course of 3 hours. We very much enjoyed meeting the vendors and watching the food be prepared. It was all delicious!
One of the best things about the tour was the restaurant recommendation he gave us for our last dinner in Hanoi. We went to this place we never ever would have come across on our own. It was a restaurant which specialized in dishes from various local communities, each with different ethnic backgrounds. It was all locally sourced and much of it was food you would never see on another menu. We were the only foreigners in the place, and we sat cross legged on the floor and ordered chicken fat fried sticky rice, water buffalo and wild greens stir fried and a gorgeous air dried sausage.
We also ordered a rose apple flavour rice liquor, which quickly had us giggling as we perused the "Insect Menu". After coming to terms with the fact we were about to get on a plane for a very very long trip, we decided against the ant larvae dessert.
After dinner, we went to have a drink at the rooftop bar in the nearby Sofitel Plaza Hotel and sipped cocktails while looking over the beautiful Hanoi nightscape, not quite believing our three months had come to an end. We reflected on our travels, from Fiji to Vietnam and everywhere along the way. We talked about our favourite places and our favourite experiences and where we would like to go next.
Vietnam was fantastic and we know there is so much more we would like to see, but for now, it is time to head home. We really did come to appreciate that the joy is in the journey, in the time spent with each other and in meeting new people and making new friends. I guess this means it is time to start planning our next adventure!
“Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end” – Pico Iyer