Central Coast – Vietnam 19-30 March 2011

We spent a week and a half on the Central and South Central Coast, taking in Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Dong Ha and the Demilitarized Zone. The travelling was done by a mixture of train and bus, the former being very pleasant and the latter at least bearable.

Train Trip Phu Ly to Hue
We rose early, settling up the last of the hotel check-out and catching a taxi to the “Ga Phu Ly” for the train to Hue. The train was on time and we boarded without hassle. At first, we shared the compartment with a young girl and her small child but when the ticket collector came along, she was moved down the corridor a few spots and given a top bunk for both of them to use. We felt sorry for her but after we could still hear the child screaming after 15 minutes our sympathy evaporated. We had the whole compartment to our selves right up until Noon, when we reached Vinh, and a young mum with two boys (aged 2 and 5) boarded. She was great company, with reasonable English and a sweet personality. The younger boy was a bit of a terror, but spent a lot of time asleep. The 5 year old was very bright, and spent hours drawing, trying to write numbers, cutting shapes or trying to match the simple origami shapes we showed him. He and Christine had lengthy conversation that neither could understand but it all seemed to work out.
At 12 hours, the trip was just long enough. The scenery was great and the weather clear by Vietnamese standards. We were amazed by the large number of towering cathedrals scattered throughout the rural areas. At most times, a spire or dome can be seen in the distance. Not all are a legacy of French rule because we saw some huge cathedrals currently under construction. The train itself is very comfortable and the line in excellent condition, reducing the rocking to a minimum. We did experience the occasional jarring jolt that trains seem to do, which usually set the Dutch kid next door into a protracted wailing session. People who travel with small children deserve a medal.

We brought some bread rolls, boiled eggs, cheese and jam with us as sustenance but there was plenty of other food available via the regular carts that went through the carriages. We had a meal of rice, pork on a stick, chicken leg, a sausage-like substance and spring rolls. Of course, we also managed a couple of beers.
On arrival at Hue, we had the usual fight with a taxi driver, who wanted 150,000VN to take us to our hotel when the local Mum from the train said it should be about 40,000VN. We finally settled on 60,000VN. Throughout the trip, he told us that our hotel was a long way out of town and that he could get us one for $US10 a night. We pointed out that we had already paid but it didn’t stop him. He showed us one that he claimed was really good, not like ours that was very far from the central area. We got huffy so he drove the extra 50 metres down the road to where our hotel was. Good try.

Hue is a bit of a surprise, bigger than I expected and the “old city” is less in evidence than I had imagined from the reading. It is the ancient capital of the Nguyen Emperors and is filled with some wonderful ancient buildings. It was also badly damaged during the war and some areas are still in poor condition.
Arriving at night, we were surprised by the dazzle of neon lights and large numbers of people out and about for al-fresco dining or drinks. After the drab and dreary Phu Ly, Hue was at the other end of the tourism scale and things were hopping.
However, along with the tourism comes the hard sell and street annoyances can be a little heavy for a while until you become a familiar face and the cyclo drivers and river boat sellers start to ease off. The old buildings of the fortress and the citadel are indeed awesome, but we have never been very much into temples and ruins so this aspect is largely wasted. We did succumb to booking a tour of the Palace and some tombs but Christine got sick the night before so we cancelled out. Oh well, another time perhaps.
Hoi An
We caught a bus to Hoi An for a few days, travelling through Danang. The bus trip itself was good, mainly because I insisted on sitting near the back so we couldn’t see the road ahead. Christine always enjoys the scenery but I don’t think much of the idea of watching motor bikes disappearing under the front of the bus or pedestrians being flung off into the road verge. The bus itself was plain and simple, with vinyl seats that at least reclined. The road was generally good, with even a dual carriage-way in places. The scenery was quite spectacular, although we did not go over the famous Hai Van Pass,(also the scene of many terrible accidents). Instead, the bus took the new Hai Van Tunnel, a 6.5km long tunnel straight through the mountain range. The Hai Van Tunnel took 5 years to complete and is currently the longest tunnel in South East Asia.
At a road-side stop at the top of one mountain pass, a US couple declared that they would travel back to Hue on the train, this bus trip being too terrifying. It wasn’t that bad, but then they were sitting up front.

On arrival at Hoi An, the bus dropped us at a location only a short walk to the Greenfield Hotel, where we had booked. We stayed there last year, and when we walked in, a couple of staff greeted us warmly. “You remember me from last year?”. We were amazed that they would pick us from the thousands of tourists that they see every year but they could even remember things that we had done. While not the cheapest hotel around, this place has a lot of charm and is extremely friendly. We love it.
We hired bicycles and ambled around the old town, enjoying the relative safety of the traffic and the freedom of mobility. While Hoi An is unmistakably “touristy”, is totally retains the charm of the old town. It is said to be the best preserved example of an old Chinese trading port in existence. While all others have been rapidly overcome with modern structures, the gaining of World Heritage Status and the influx of foreign preservation dollars has ensured the old ways are retained. The Government enforces strict controls over the street touts and so one can wander around with little harassment and lots of friendly “hellos”. This is the only place in Asia that has cyclo drivers who wait for you to come to them and don’t annoy you for business.
We had a wonderful lunch down at the dock area. The food here is unique. Most dishes will have their own Hoi An variation, some, such as the ubiquitous “fried wonton” is so different to any other that it has to be experienced. Rather than the usual deep fried little parcels, these are oval shaped and flat, then heaped with finely diced vegetables and shrimps. A real treat. A local specialty is Lau Cao, a noodle dish with a delicious sauce and vegetables. Once again, it is unlike anything else and defies accurate description. It is said to require the noodles to be cooked in rice water, the original water to have been drawn from a well in a local village. However, there are so many restaurants selling this dish that the well would have run dry years ago.
Hoi An is famous for its ultra-cheap tailors and shoe-makers. They can produce anything you want in only a few hours. The quality of the materials and workmanship is universally good and the bargaining itself is very entertaining. I wanted a good pair of sandals while Christine was chasing another pair of evening shoes. She drove a very hard bargain, walking out twice (but never quite making it to the bikes) until we got mine for $15 and hers for $20. Both were full leather inner and outer and custom made for our feet. We ordered them around 1pm and organised to return at 6pm to pick them up. Can’t beat it.

Hoi An remains one of our favourite places anywhere. We will definitely be back.

Train Hue to Nha Trang
The 12 hour trip from Hue to Nha Trang was during the day, leaving Hue at a respectable 8am and arriving at 8:30pm. We did the trip from Danang to Hue last year and the Hai Van pass by rail was a highlight. This time, poor weather obscured much of the view but with a huge swell running, the sections where we hugged the coast were spectacular. We enjoyed the company of a young English couple, James and Jodie, who we seem to keep catching up with, and from Quang Nghai to Nha Trang shared a cabin with an engaged couple who are living and working in Saigon. The girl was born in Quang Nghai but moved to Texas at age 12. With the great company and the fact that we can both sleep well on the trains, the trip passed quickly.
Nha Trang
By Nha Trang the rain had stopped, but the terrible wind persists and it was very overcast. The promotional literature for Nha Trang boasts of over 300 days a year of sunshine but we didn’t see one. The weather ruled out excursions to the islands or the waterfalls and National Parks of the nearby mountains. We did spend some time just sitting down near the beach watching the huge surf crash along the shore. The beautiful white beach was being badly eroded by the surf and the beach was officially closed.
We spent a quiet relaxing day, with some long walks through the beach-side parks. Here the dominant tree is a tamarisk-like tree that the locals shape into all manner of interesting shapes. Some of the parks are quite comical. The rest of Nha Trang can be summed up in two ways; more than a block back from the beach its just another provincial city. On the beach front road it’s a typical Asian beach resort, quieter than Patong or Kuta, but more upmarket and active than Langkawi. With the weather situation, a full comparison is unfair but I lean towards Langkawi over Nha Trang.
One day was spent at Vinpearl, a theme park type development on an off shore island. It is very much like Sentosa in Singapore. Vinpearl is reached by means of a 3.5km long cable car. With the wind gusting to over 40km per hour, it was rocking and swaying a bit but the trip was certainly smoother than if the ferry had been running.
At the amusement park, we acted like little kids, even spending time in the video game arcade playing Rambo, driving cars on race tracks and watching 3D movies. It is one of those “Entry Ticket Buys All” situations so we just went for it. There is also an ultra exclusive resort on the far side of the island. They were hosting a beauty pageant so everywhere there we saw young girls running around being photographed in high heels. It was really hard to take. By the end of the day, many were limping and most were carrying their shoes. Christine went on the “Elevator”, a terrible spinning ride that carried a huge wheel up and around, at one stage spinning the occupants around while totally upside down. I really wanted to go but someone had to stay down and take photos. At the top of the ride, her screams were audible and she was using a universal language. People on the ground were in hysterics.
We enjoyed the huge Underwater World, similar to the one at Hillarys. With the weather so bad, crowds were right down and we were able to enjoy all the facilities in a relaxed manner without joining big queues. The complete package for a day’s fun and two way ride on the cable car is $14. Amazing.

Leaving Vietnam
We leave Vietnam for Kuala Lumpur today, flying via Ho Chi Minh City. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time and will definitely be back next year for Project Vietnam again. The weather has been a huge problem though and, although everyone says it is unseasonal, we’ll probably head across the mountains in Laos and Cambodia, chasing warmer weather next year.