We visited the ancient trading port of Hoi An and the old royal capital Hué, and then on to Vietnam’s vibrant capital, Hanoi
Hoi An, stepping back in time
We decided to spend three nights in Hoi An, a world heritage site, and a preserved ancient south East Asian trading port.
Stepping down those alleys to the waterfronts, felt like stepping back in time, 500 years to be precise, to a time of bustling commerce, of candlelight, of wooden shops and factories, of stone bridges, colourful suspended lanterns, of rowing boats and candles floating along the water.
We sat at a table overlooking the throngs of tourists in the bustling market place and I ordered a typical local soup that had croutons, poppadoms and noodles, a concoction drawn from the various nationalities that have influenced, shaped and traded here in Hoi An.
And even today there are throngs of tourists from everywhere, even till late at night, milling around, enjoying the ambience, eating local delicacies and sipping beer from its riverside bars.
Critics of Hoi An say the town is too commercial, too busy with tourists, and there are several popular blog posts at the moment advising people to stay away and saying why people shouldn’t visit it.
But that’s the age-old tradition of Hoi An; her commerciality continues. Half a millennium ago it was all about physical trade, and then the sandbars clogged up the waterways in the 1800s, so Hoi An became redundant for many years when trade flourished in nearby Danang.
Today Hoi An has reinvented herself by going back to her roots, it’s about bringing in the tourist dollars whether by selling the lanterns, the tailored suits, the cool café coffees, the boat rides even the Irish bars. It’s all elegantly consistent when viewed with a longer lens.
Our next stop after Hoi An was Hué, the main cultural centre of Vietnam, where we spent three nights. Here the tombs of the Vietnamese emperors are set against vistas of hilly landscapes, a bay of bobbing boats, where a series of exaggeratedly large pink lotuses line the middle of the of the Song Huong, the Perfume River.
The imperial city in Hué is on the northern side of the the Perfume River and all the major sights are in a moated area.
It’s a wonderful open and airy place to explore with its lawns and ponds, old buildings of tiled roofs and lacquered floors and furniture. It felt strangely lonely, with few people and the emperors’ narratives themselves cut forlorn puppet figureheads, unloved by Vietnamese history.
The imperial city was always a controversial place; after Communist unification in the 1970s, the place was left derelict, the royal family held up as examples of bourgeois oppressors.
But it was a master-stroke to not destroy the site because in 1993 it became a world heritage site and tourist dollars came flooding in. The commercial Vietnam, where everything is packaged and priced for you while you just sit back, hand over the Dong, and enjoy the ride, was just the catalyst to such an opportunity.
Hanoi on a lazy Sunday
The next day we flew north and we found ourselves walking the old quarter of Vietnam’s enchanting capital Hanoi, a mix of chaotic south East Asian street scenes and elegant wide boulevards and air conditioned malls centred around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Is it bad to crave home foods when you’re on a sojourn to discover new cultures, new ways of life and thinking? If it is, we were shameless in going in to Hanoi’s McDonalds, ordering our burgers, fries and shakes on their huge touchscreens and eating them sat by large contented Vietnamese families out for a Sunday stroll.
In the evenings around the lake, young school children approach tourists to improve their English and I got chatting to a young lad who told us all about Vietnam’s history and the life of Ho Chi Minh. I was impressed with the quality of his English and his encyclopaedic knowledge of his nation; I sensed despite being some wrote learning, he held the father of the nation in genuine deep reverence and affection.
At weekends the area around the lake becomes pedestrianised and that Sunday there were stalls, bands, street acts everywhere. It was a really wonderful way to unwind like the Vietnamese.
But we went back to the hotel early, we would be catching a seaplane to Halong in the morning.