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Ancient Imperial Capital

January 30-February 2

" What do you expect from a country that had a thousand years of mandarin rule, followed by a hundred years of the French civil service, followed by the Communist Party? "

- Frustrated foreign investor, quoted in The Economist

We took a bus from Hoi An north, through the city of Danang, on to Hue, about a five-hour trip including a couple of brief sightseeing stops and lunch at the beach resort of Lang Co. Along the way, we stopped at the ridiculously over-touristed Marble Mountains and China Beach, and Hai Van Pass. The Marble Mountains are, sure enough, made of marble, and there are a few interesting temples carved into the caves there, but the souvenir touts make it a "get in-get out quick" type of place. China Beach is the same beach which served as a major R&R location for U.S. soldiers from nearby Danang Airbase (and the same beach where the 1980s TV series took place). It's a very nice beach. Hai Van Pass is spectacular, a mountain pass literally right on the coast where the road winds and bends its way thousands of feet into the air, practically straight up over the South China Sea. At points, the road can be scary -- heavy mist often cloaks the mountaintop, and potholes and a lack of guardrails makes the journey over the pass breathtaking in more ways than one. Once over the pass, the road once again strikes out over flattish terrain, but the heavy seasonal rains of central Vietnam wreak havoc on the stretch of highway between Hai Van pass and Hue -- it was a bone-jarring ride over potholed asphalt for the remaining three hours to Hue.

Hue is the ancient imperial capital of Nguyen Dynasty Vietnam. Founded in 1601, Hue sits right in the middle of Vietnam, dividing the northern part of the country from the south. Because of its strategic location, the city saw some of the roughest, most senseless fighting of the Vietnam-American War. The 1968 Tet Offensive reduced the old Imperial City nearly to rubble, and the areas surrounding the "Demilitarized Zone" (DMZ) just north of Hue were the sites of some of the war's bloodiest battles, including those at Hamburger Hill and Cunningham.


Crumbling entryway inside the Royal City (note the bulletholes)

Hue is most famous for (what's left of) its Imperial City. Modeled after Beijing's Forbidden City, the site is impressively large, surrounded by a huge moat, with a walled entry at the famous Citadel fortification. Most of the Imperial City was blown to bits by American and Vietminh forces in 1968. Hue now serves as something of an anology for the entire Second Indochinese Conflict (as historians now refer to the war) -- the Americans eventually succeeded at recapturing Hue, but utterly destroyed it in the process. Needless to say, the hearts of the citizens of Hue were won over by neither the Americans or the North Vietnamese.

Walking through the ruins of the Citadel and Imperial City, one cannot help but feel remorse for the loss of such an important piece of human history. In fact, the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in the late 1990s. Funds have begun to trickle in and some of the buildings are being restored or rebuilt from the ground up. Maybe someday the Imperial City of Hue will regain something of its lost glory, but it will all be made of modern materials, with so little remaining of the original site other than some crumbling, blasted-out building foundations.

Thien Mu pagoda

Thien Mu pagoda

The Perfume River, which runs through the center of Hue, is an important waterway in Vietnam. A pleasant thing to do in Hue is to hire a boat (with captain) to cruise down the river, visiting riverside sights like the serene Thien Mu Pagoda and the many Royal Tombs, like that of Ming Mang, which lie several kilometers downriver from Hue proper.

Perfume River

Women on the Perfume River

The weather in Hue was much cooler than it was in Saigon and Hoi An. Throughout the day, a sort of mist hung in the air, obscuring the sun during the daylight hours and casting a chill over the city at night. It was the first time we had to break out our fleece pullovers in a long time. We should have taken this as a sign of things to come, as we moved further north to the wintery weather of Hanoi...

From Hue, we hurried back to Danang, where we had to overnight (out of necessity) for our morning flight north to Hanoi. We really wish didn't have to stay in Danang...the place is a pit. It's only claim to fame is its place in history as the United States' major airbase during the Second Indochina War. Aside from the nice Cham Museum (full of artifacts from the ancient Cham culture -- contemporaries of the Khmers), there is nothing to do in Danang, an ugly, rundown port city. We were only too happy to leave after our brief night in a noisy hotel room there.


Vietnam's Charming Capital City

February 2-7

Flower Sellers

Flower sellers, downtown Hanoi

Hanoi is a nice city. The "City of Lakes" (there are dozens of them here), proud, reserved Hanoi has a romantic, unique appeal -- it must be Southeast Asia's nicest capital city. Unlike Bangkok or Jakarta or Singapore, it isn't a bustling metropolis full of skyscrapers and deal makers. The Vietnamese have left that distinction to Saigon. No, Hanoi is refreshingly different -- a "small big city," with wide, tree-lined boulevards, green parks with lakes, and a many interesting neighborhoods. The communists may have taken over from the French in the 1950s, but the European flavor still exists -- in the lakeside parks, in the cafe culture, in the colonial architecture around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Opera House

View of the Hanoi Opera House

Hanoi was established as the French Indochinese capital in 1902. As a result, the city is loaded with beautiful old French Colonial buildings. The French, in keeping with their habit of needing to be surrounded by their own culture, set out to recreate a tiny bit of France in Hanoi. They built an entire "city within a city" in the French Quarter, a neighborhood to the southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. The most spectacular of the French buildings is probably the Opera House, built as an exact replica of the Paris Opera House (actually, it's smaller, but otherwise identical). You can still go see performances in the now-renovated building. Unfortunately, like everything else in the country, the Opera House was closed for the Tet festivities while we were in town.

3 Old Dudes

A classic Hanoi sight -- Old Guys chatting on a park bench

3 Old Dudes

Communism still lives in Vietnam

Hanoians are self-sufficient and busy doing their own thing. They seem more interested in going about their own business than worrying much about tourist money and the rush of capitalism. Vietnam may be quickly adopting capitalist-style economic reforms, but it's obvious in Hanoi that old-school communism isn't dead yet. This must be one of the last places in the world where a statue of Lenin still stands (situated, appropriately enough, in Lenin Park). And then there are the many Soviet-style "proletariat-raising-arms-against-tyranny" posters to be found everywhere along the streets. And yet, the people are quiet and nice, and don't seem to much care that their city is increasingly attracting international tourists. Our bet: within the next few years, Hanoi will emerge as one of the world's "hot spot" travel cities. It's got all the potential, and it's already a cool spot to visit.


A little hot tea on a cold, rainy day...

Hanoi is smaller and much nicer than its southern sister, Saigon. It's also very safe -- you needn't worry too much about your wallet or handbag being snatched here. We spent a total of seven days here (five upon arrival, two later after we returned from the northern mountains), and aside from the sinister, cold gray weather which never let up during our stay, we really liked just about everything about the place. But, oh, it was cold -- our first taste of a real Northern Hemisphere winter since we left home. It rained off and on and the temperature never climbed above 55 or 60F. We started getting a little antsy by the time we had to leave for Sapa (where the weather was just as bad, but at least we had a different environment to shiver in).

Hoan Kiem

Taking a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake


Game of checkers, Hoan Kiem lake

The center of the city, both physically and spiritually, is Hoan Kiem Lake, a pretty little lake surrounded by big shade trees, park benches, and cafes. Early in the morning, old men can be seen practicing their tai chi around the lake, and any time of day is a good time to go people watching at Hoan Kiem. A sacred pagoda lies on an island in the middle of the lake, accessible by a quaint red wooden bridge.


How about a nice streetside haircut?

No visit to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. The founder of the Vietnamese independence movement is, in the style of Vladimir Lenin, on display for visitors to view. After being herded by very serious guards, two-by-two, through an austere entrance to the man's tomb, we entered the cold, dark room where a waxy, long-dead Uncle Ho lies in state, eerily illuminated under a couple of dim spotlights. Apparently, Ho had the same "taxidermist" as Lenin. Every year, the body has to be taken away to Moscow for maintenance. Uncle Ho probably would have disapproved of the whole "body on display" thing -- he was a simple man who desired to be cremated after death. What's with the need for these communist countries to pickle their most famous revolutionary leaders? Hmmm...

During our stay in Hanoi, we took a one-day side trip to...


Magical Bay of a Thousand Islands

February 4

Rice Fields

Brilliant rice fields, Red River Delta (near Halong)

Halong Bay

Cruising the mystical waters of Halong Bay

Halong Bay must be one of the world's most beautiful natural attractions. About three hours east of Hanoi by road, Halong is worth a multiple-day trip in itself, but given the harsh weather, we decided to make a long day trip of it. Boarding a boat in Halong City, we took a four-hour cruise through the magical waterscape of the Bay.

Halong Bay consists of thousands of limestone karst islets which rise from a sheltered bay in the South China Sea. The landscape is similar to the those of Guilin, South China, or Southern Thailand, but it's also very unique because of the interaction of water and limestone here. Placid, glassy waters, hidden grottos, and tiny cone-shaped islets await the visitor. You can literally get lost in the maze of offshore islands. Halong Bay is a place of outstanding natural beauty. To see more of it, rent the movie Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve -- parts of the movie were filmed here.

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