A step back in time in Central Vietnam

A quick flight from Saigon landed us in the city of Da Nang just as the day was coming to an end.  Our pre-arranged transportation failed to show up which seems to be happening a lot lately. After several calls to our hotel to try to sort out our transportation, we finally grabbed a taxi to Hoi An, about an hour away, at a cost of $18 US. It was difficult to see much in the fading light, other than the huge chain resorts that lined the coast. Many of these high end resorts charge $1,000 US + per night – way beyond our meagre and dwindling budget.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, our arrival in Hoi An, an ancient town recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, coincided with Earth Day.  By the time we had settled into our hotel, the Long Life Riverside Hotel, the Earth Day celebrations were in full swing.  Brightly lit paper lanterns in a medley of colours floated down the river in front of our hotel and a live band entertained the swelling crowd.  Even though we didn’t have a clue what the celebrations were for, it was a charming introduction to this equally charming town, which is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century.

The next few days were spent exploring the town and vicinity including the beaches for which the area is well known, using the bicycles provided for free by our hotel as our primary means of transportation.  The ancient town was overflowing with tourists, mainly large Chinese tour groups which have become a familiar sight throughout South-East Asia.  Of course, we hated the crowds.  While the town offered some great photo ops with its unique architecture that blended a variety of influences, we thought it was being ruined by tourism as most buildings have been converted to shops and restaurants which cater only to tourists.   It was far more interesting as we ventured further afield, outside the town and to the beaches which offered miles and miles of almost deserted clean, white sand and warm waters.

Don’t be fooled – while this looks like an array of culinary delights,
it is actually a group of miniature, plastic magnets! 

Unusual fishing boats in Hoi An

Hoi An is renowned for its tailor shops and many tourists choose this location to purchase custom made clothing.  Chris already had two suits and three shirts made in Chiang Mai, so we didn’t avail ourselves this time around.   It is practically impossible for foreigners to purchase off the rack clothing because of the size difference between westerners and Asians.  Neither Chris or I are overly large, yet it was not uncommon to enter a shop and to be told “No size for you lady!”  If a shop did carry larger sizes, I was an XL (at home I am a small or medium) and Chris was a 3 or 4 times XL.  Ah well, it made it easy to resist the temptation of buying things we didn’t need.  I fell in love with the lanterns that were sold everywhere, but even though they folded flat, they were still rather heavy and bulky, and there was no way to squeeze them into our back packs.

On our way to Hue (via private car and driver – see travel tip below), we stopped at Marble Mountain which is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located south of Da Nang city. All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels, and it is possible to climb to the summit of one of the peaks. Several Buddhist sanctuaries can also be found within the mountains, making this a famous tourist destination. The area is renowned for stone sculpture making and stone-cutting crafts. Of course you can buy these sculptures ranging in price from a dollar or two to thousands of dollars. 

The road from Da Nang to Hue is reputed to be one of the most scenic drives in all of Vietnam, with Hai Van Pass, the natural boundary between the north and the south, offering spectacular coastal views on a clear day.  We didn’t regret paying a little extra to hire a private car and driver to take us to Hue.  Not only did we make a few stops  to places like Marble Mountain and China Beach, the driver would stop whenever we wanted to take a picture.  It took us about five hours to travel from Hoi An to Hue including all our stops.

China Beach

Hai Van Pass

Hue is another city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site mainly for its historic monuments such as the Citadel (Imperial City) and the emperor tombs.  We spent three days here but two would have been enough.



It takes several hours to visit the grounds of the Imperial City which is enclosed by a 2 km square wall and surrounded by a moat.  Within the Imperial City lies the Purple Forbidden City, an enclosure that was reserved for the Nguyễn imperial family.  Construction on the Imperial City began in 1806 and it was inhabited until the mid-1900’s when the  rule of the last Vietnamese Emperor ended.  Unfortunately, the city was hard hit during the Vietnamese war and you can still see the bullet holes in some remaining walls.  Today, the site is in a state of serious decay, although many buildings have recently been restored with plans to continue the restoration work throughout.  It took several hours to go through this massive site.  We were happy that we did this on our own rather than in a guided tour group which would shuffle you through too quickly.

The Royal tombs located outside the city are the burial grounds of prominent emperors and their families.  These sites were very impressive in their size and decoration and seemed much older due to the amount of decay that has eaten away at the stone.  We organized our own excursion (see travel tip below) which made for an interesting if somewhat confusing outing.  First we hired our boat directly from the river front.  We negotiated what we thought was a fair rate with the lady in Boat #162 (400,000 Dong = about $20 CAD).  Once on board, we were offered lunch for an additional 200,000 Dong which we accepted.  This meant a detour to the market so that the lunch ingredients could be purchased.  We had no idea what we would be eating and immediately second-guessed our decision when we realized how primitive conditions were on the boat.  But there was no turning back once the ingredients were purchased.  It turned out to be one of the best meals we have eaten in Vietnam – and we didn’t suffer any gastro consequences either!

The boat ride was rather tedious as we slowly putt putted down the river.  We’ve been on the river a few times now and the thrill was definitely gone.  It got a little more interesting when we were deposited on the shore and instructed to hire a moto taxi to take us to two sites that are only accessible by road.  After some hard negotiations – and I still think we paid far too much at 200,000 Dong for two moto taxis – we entrusted our lives to total strangers as we climbed onto the back of the motor bikes.   Even though we were out in the country, the traffic was still crazy and the ride was somewhat terrifying. Luckily our drivers were very careful and drove quite defensively and most importantly delivered us to our destinations in one piece. The tombs were well worth visiting.

Our visit to central Vietnam was an enriching cultural experience that gave us a glimpse into Vietnam’s imperial past.  Our next Vietnamese experience – an overnight train to Hanoi – was neither enriching nor cultural, but it was an interesting experience, one that we would repeat several times before the end of our trip.

Travel Tip #1:  At $65/night, we splurged at the Long Life Riverside Hotel. Unfortunately, our experience did not match our expectations.  While the staff went out of their way to accommodate us and address our concerns, there just seemed to be one problem after another to contend with, starting with the no-show transportation at the airport.  Because of that, we arrived late and were given the last available room – a musty-smelling room that opened onto the breakfast area which meant no privacy and an early morning wake-up to the sound of dishes and cutlery clanging.  We were given a new room the next day which faced the side of the building that was a construction site – now we were awoken early to the sound of hammers and drills.  The hotel itself is decorated beautifully with hand crafted wood embellishments, large rooms that are more like suites and very spacious bathrooms.  It has all the elements of a more luxurious experience yet it just misses the mark.  Overall we were disappointed with this hotel and would not recommend it.

Travel Tip #2:  If you are short on time, consider hiring a private car to take you from Hoi An to Hue.  Most hotels can arrange this transportation (we arranged it through the Jade Hotel in Hue) and it costs about $65 US for the car and driver.  While it costs more than local bus transportation, it allows you to visit some interesting sights along the way like Marble Mountain and China Beach and travel along a very scenic route.

Travel Tip #3:  The Jade Hotel in Hue is an absolute gem with impeccable service you would expect to receive in a 5* establishment.  The deluxe room cost $25 per night including a satisfying breakfast making it excellent value.  It’s well situated too within walking distance of some excellent restaurants, the river and even the Citadel (about 15 minutes away).

Travel Tip #4:  In Hue, there are several transportation options to visit the royal tombs outside of town – boat, bus tour, and private car.  Most hotels can arrange a tour for you.  The cheapest is by group tour which runs under $10 US per person.  We opted to travel by boat and make our own arrangements which turned out to cost almost the same as the private hotel tour which was $45 US for two. We paid $20 CAD for the boat transportation, $10 CAD for lunch for two, and $10 CAD moto taxi for two. In hindsight, it would have been a lot easier and less stressful to book the tour through the hotel, but then again, doing it on our own made for a much more adventurous day.

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One Response
  1. Julie says:

    Wow, love it, the narration and photos are fantastic! I loved this journey through Vietnam…Thanks guys! ox talk to you soon, I know you’re back, but I will let you contact me when you are ready…besides I don’t have a contact number for you at your new temporary home…oxo Ju