Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass separates the contrasting towns of Hue and Hoi An in Central Vietnam. The jungle pass with its spectacular views soaring up from the coast is nature’s gateway between the climates of the north and south. Depart Hoi An by bus under a burning sun and blue sky and arrive in Hue two hours later to drizzling rain and cold wind. Twenty minutes in low gear climbing winding Highway 1 and it feels good to reward your vehicle with a rest at the top. Looking back is the industrial Danang and the long glorious stretch of China beach running away to Hoi An. Ahead and around us is jungle. We stretch our feet by exploring the musty old American pillboxes pointing desperately out into the deep surrounding foliage. It is a beautiful but eerie setting and I almost expect to see Iroquois helicopters wheeling in through the valley and heading down to the beaches like a scene from Apocalypse Now.
As seasoned travellers with a full two weeks experience we find the Vietnamese people to be consistently warm and good humoured. The variety of each new city has been an exciting and unexpected bonus. Again we experience this lovely contrast as we move from the picturesque old trading port and shopping mecca of Hoi An to the historical Citadel city of Hue.
We had made a tentative start in Hoi An. The children rated our accommodation as acceptable but were looking for me to tweak it a little and organize some minor adjustments. A room change to a balcony view scored well as did finding a secluded swimming pool they didn’t have to share with romantic young backpackers. We settled in nicely after I completed my ritual search for mosquitoes and band aided any holes in the mozzie netting. Hoi An was a memorable experience for the family, a town of highlights and a few normal little setbacks. Like a night on the toilet from a suspect pizza. Amy’s birthday was a main highlight and helped us make a strong connection with two young staff members at the hotel. Vinh and Thanh organized a beautiful traditional birthday cake and joined us in our birthday celebrations. We would chat at breakfast and at the end of the day and they would delight the children with their smiles.
Vinh and I had a quiet beer late one night, sharing some stories and discussing the problems of the world. I gave him my views on Australia’s strengths and weaknesses and he provided some insights on his Vietnam. His comments confirmed the picture of a Vietnam proud of itself and looking forward toward a prosperous future. It wasn’t that simple though and without bitterness he told me some of his family history. He was just a baby when his father flew with the South Vietnamese Air Force and trained in Australia. His look was sad when he spoke of his father’s long period of “rehabilitation” after the war. He told me of the tough years when the northern victors took the spoils and left the south impoverished. He said this trend continues to some extent today. The recent history is still there and not forgotten as he makes his way in a Vietnam opening up to the western world. For Amy’s birthday we decided to ring the grandparents in Melbourne. Somewhere in my head a voice said this was not a good idea, but I bit my tongue and decided not to enhance my reputation as a scrooge. We talked happily from the hotel room for more than 30 minutes covering a range of topics including the weather and the football results. When we check out of the hotel my jaw dropped with a phone bill of $100 US. Too late I read in the guidebook that Vietnam tops the list for expensive international calls. I flippantly told the family about the bill but secretly take a few days to get over it.
The Old Quarter of Hoi An is a time capsule taking you back to its glory days as a port rivaling Macau and Melaka. A car free zone it offers an abundance of historical buildings ranging from Chinese merchant houses, colonnaded French buildings to the famed Japanese Covered Bridge. For Centuries Hoi An traded in exotic products including porcelain, paper, elephant tusks, mother of pearl, beeswax and its specialty high grade silk. Today it is a fashion paradise offering a dedicated Cloth market surrounded by streets of dressmaking shops making tailor made wardrobes for a few hundred dollars. Amy had hit the jackpot for her birthday and with her Mum began a complex bargaining and measurement process while Joe and I waited poolside or explored the bread shops for croissants. Amy’s new silk dress and matching sandals transferred her from a little girl to a glamorous model. My little baby was growing up before my eyes. I was tempted to ask her to box the outfit for a few more years to give me some time to adjust.
One afternoon walking alone in a simmering midday heat wave I took refuge under the porch of a shop. My eyes adjusted to the shade and I noticed the beautiful Calligraphy posters in the window. Inside I met an old man who looked like Confucius. He smiled and bowed slightly asking if he could be of assistance? With sweeping penmanship he created a motif of Chinese symbols to bestow health and long life on the family. I left his shop with a warm glow. For our final day in Hoi An we piled into an old taxi for the 10 minute ride to the coast. The day was spent lounging on beach chairs, eating fruit and splashing in the warm sea. The kids danced and giggled with glee when a regal elephant from a nearby 5 star resort wandered past. It smiled as it walked past and winked at us out of the corner of its eye.
The narrow lanes and quiet alleyways of Hoi An are a distant memory as we roll down Hue’s grand boulevards and cross the Perfume river to our hotel. This is a city of Royal Tombs, pagoda towers and the remains of a mighty Citadel. But it is raining and cold so we are focused on other priorities such as a warm bath. The proprietor immediately wins us over when he offers to serve us tea and biscuits in our room on the balcony. Even better the TV offers some English channels although the kids are content to watch the Simpsons in any language. I love balconies because you are hidden away but can silently watch the whole world go past. It makes you feel like a spy. I watch as a huge truck of bricks pulls up next door. Two men and 15 minutes and the tray is empty. No wonder the Americans lost the war. It is National Independence Day and intermittent green trees and red flags with the yellow star line the street. The air is heavy and warm while the Citadel broods in the distance. Perfect.
At dusk we wander out for a curry and then head toward the river. The Trang Tien Bridge is aglow with coloured neon lights changing continually along its arches. One moment it is dark then blue, green and purple lights make a run across the river. The kids love the lights chasing us as we cross over on the walkway. After an ice-cream its time to retire in readiness for a big day at the Citadel.
The moated Citadel site is huge covering several city blocks. It has a long and colourful history being built by Emperor Gia Long in 1804. No connection to our hometown Geelong. Marg was keen to get a guide but I felt we could guess our way through the meaning of the Vietnamese written commentaries. My need to be independent (and cheap) is sometimes quite deluded. How often do tourists cross the world to some exotic site only to wander in a confused daze through its exhibits? I never learn. We heard all sorts of interesting information about the architecture, moats, lakes, gates and cannons. Thousands of workers laboured to build the Citadel and its enormous ramparts only to have them ravaged by a typhoon, the French and then the Americans. I loved the stuff about the Emperor, eunuchs and concubines who lived in the inner Forbidden Purple City. Unfortunately much of it was destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the Vietcong flew the National Liberation Front flag over the Citadels Tower for 3 weeks before being crushed in a bloody counter attack.
After our culture tour we were in a reflective and quiet mood as we retired the Citadel through the fortified front gate. We were shaken out of our daydream as soon as we crossed the moat and touched the pavement. A trio of cyclos began circling incessantly and demanding a fare. Polite refusals and Joe’s impassive stares were having no effect. The family instinctively closed up like a Roman Phalanx and shot across the park to freedom. We restored our spirits with a coke by the Perfume River.
I knew in my heart, and friends have since confirmed, that we should have spent the last day in Hue visiting the extravagant tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty. The kids were less than keen and in their all knowing way informed me that tombs were the same as pagodas. So they continued in that slow tone they reserve for a thick Dad.
“We have seen a lot of pagodas so it’s logical we go shopping.” And, indeed, water puppets did prove to have their appeal for young eyes. But I realize now we not only missed the emperors tombs but also compounds of temples, pavilions and lakes. I’ll never know if it would have topped the kids fun day selecting CDs and our bounteous restock at the Dong Ba Market. Our bags brimming with contraband we are ready for our next leg to Hanoi.