After our bike tour, we visited the ancient trading cities of Hoi An and Hue. As always seems the case, we were behind on the amount of time left on our visa so our visit to both cities was quick.

Hoi An

Jodi and I took a vacation to Vietnam about three years ago with the majority of the time being spent in Hoi An, an ancient trading city with architectural influences from China, Japan, and Europe. Upon riding into town I was met by a wave of familiarity. I recognized small alleyways where we walked to our favorite restaurant and landmarks that made negotiating the city easier.

On our last visit our main goal was to shop till we dropped; Hoi An is the tailor capital of Vietnam. We bought tailor-made suits, skirts, shirts, silk purses, and embroidered scarves during our last visit. We vowed that this time we would be a bit more culturally aware of the architecture offered by the city. We bought our passes that allowed us to visit one historical house, one of the assembly halls around town, an event (like a music festival), and one of the four museums. We had the best of intentions but I knew that it was a losing battle with our first historical home visit. The Japanese influenced architecture was beautiful and the mother of pearl inlaid antique furniture was pretty cool, but it’s just not in us to be awe inspired by that sort of thing. Don’t get us wrong, Hoi An is a beautiful city because of its architecture and our favorite city in Vietnam, but we prefer wandering the streets rather than taking a tour. We hit a traditional music and dance show that was interesting and an community assembly hall before finally calling all this cultural stuff quits. We went back to basics and did what comes naturally when in Hoi An, we shopped.

The only thing we regretted not buying on our previous visit was some artwork. The oil paintings in Hoi An are amazingly good and cheap. Thus, we set off searching for a few pieces to fill up blank walls back home and serve as reminders of this trip. It took the rest of the day going from shop to shop but we finally found an artist that we both loved. We picked out a few of the choice pieces and started the negotiations. One of our longest negotiations to date, there was lively haggling with the shop owner and numerous calls to the artist but we finally left the shop with our loot. However, we just bought our way into another problem. The two foot tube with our much haggled over paintings inside would be impossible to fit in our packs. Hoi An would have to be the place were we played Russian roulette to make a shipment home. We’ve heard that Hoi An was a good place to ship from since they deal with a lot of international packages, but we also heard of packages being picked through with items going missing. We decided to not only ship our paintings but also put together another package of some Cambodian silk purses and some excess clothes that Jodi didn’t need. I’ve been carrying 10 silk purses since Siem Reap, so I was excited to unload them but Jodi was obviously concerned whether they’d really make it. Fingers crossed….

Hue

Our first introduction to Hue was getting off a three hour bus ride from Hoi An and being instantly surrounded by touts (locals wanting to sell you something). Shouts of “motor bike?” and “guesthouse” came at us from every direction. We’ve encountered this before but the sheer number of touts around amazed us. In rare fashion, Jodi asked whether she could swat at them as they seemed more like pesky gnats then folks trying to earn an honest living. Luckily we had a place in mind that wasn’t too far away so we set off at a good pace leaving them behind with some other victims. It was really hot and humid in Hue, just walking a few blocks caused my shirt to become thoroughly soaked. So, when Jodi spotted a hotel with a pool we decided to take a look, hoping that it would be in our price range. At just ten dollars a night we had ourselves a winner, especially considering the room came equipped with cable TV, hot water, access to the pool, and a wireless signal from a hotel across the street. Without further adieu, we hit the pool to cool off a bit and relax from the bus trip. The area of town where we were located seemed to be littered with western restaurants and bars catering to backpackers. We treated ourselves to a fine meal of pizza and pasta, congratulating each other for another successful city to city transition.

From 1802 to 1945 Hue was the previous capital of Vietnam. Thirteen emperors reigned here and in the surrounding countryside their crumbling tombs lay. We decided that the best {and cheapest) way to see the sights around town was to hire a couple of motorbikes and drivers to take us around the town. This worked out pretty well; we got to tell them exactly what places we wanted to see plus they zipped us down these narrow back roads only taken by locals. We visited monks during their morning prayer; mesmerizing chanting and drumming filled the temple while the monks fulfilled their worship to Buddha.

We could have visited many tombs that dot the city but we chose to visit just one, Ta Duc. This emperor’s tomb is supposed to be the best, and the expansive grounds give an inkling to that claim. The tomb used to be the retreat for the emperor; he would come here to relax and read poetry to his hundreds of wives and concubines. It is the size of a village, surrounded by high walls on all sides. and even has an island where it is easy to imagine people fishing and swimming. The buildings are in great condition and it was fun wandering the grounds. We also went to the beautiful pink-hued Thien Mu pagoda. We also saw an arena where elephant and tigers once fought (the last battle took place in 1905). It was getting late and we were a bit tired but we had one more sight to see, The Citadel. Enclosed by two rings of high stone walls, locals lived inside the outer wall while the emperor and higher ups lived inside the more secure inner wall. We asked our guide/driver if the cost of admission to the Citadel was worth it. He didn’t think so, explaining that the buildings were similar to those of Ta Duc tomb. He suggested we go and look through the gate and maybe take some photos. I’m sure that he just wanted to go home early, but since we were feeling tired, hot, and frugal (we didn’t want to shell out another US$7 to see a park setting) we decided to take his advice. Thus, we did a quick drive in between the inner and outer wall with a couple of stops for some pictures. If we visited Hue again, we would most definitely visit the Citadel but probably on our own time. There are several posts about how locals in Hue really don’t seem that interested in helping tourists see the sites, and we would say this is true. Of the three tombs we wanted to see, we only visited one. We were talked out of seeing the other two along with the citadel. Our best advice is to do your research and decide what you want to see, and (most importantly) hold your ground.

Offering

The other historical draw to Hue is its proximity to the demilitarized zone. A mere 90 kilometers from Hue, this area saw fierce fighting in the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam). My uncle served as a marine in this area during the war. He died six months into his tour near Khe Sahn, which is about 130km away from Hue. We felt it just wouldn’t be right to come this close without visiting the area where he fought and ultimately died. We booked a private car and driver to take us out to the Khe Sahn Combat base. Along the way we stopped by a local market and picked up some flowers, incense, and fruit so that we could set up a offering to him and his fellow soldiers in remembrance. While driving out, we reflected on what the time during the war must have been like. The dense vegetation, intense heat, and the number of bugs must have made this place unbearable (not to mention the fighting). Finally reaching the combat base it was nothing more than a small museum, some helicopters, and a few bunkers. The surrounding area is overrun with coffee plants, masking its past. Setting up our offering and lighting the incense on a little altar at the base, we spent a few quiet moments in thought. The caretaker offered to take us to the hill where my uncle lost his life, but we could only recall the hill where he was last stationed. Apparently, several vets are now making the trip out to the surrounding hills to pay their respects as well as search for their comrades missing in action. We walked around the base in quiet contemplation for a few more moments before our driver signaled it was time to go.

One Response to “Ancient Cities”

  1. Kate says:

    I can not wait to see the art work!
    we went for pedi’s saturday, we missed/toasted you! The women from LT say hi.
    travel safe and have fun!
    Kate