I write this blog post on our 12th morning in Vietnam and I have to say we are loving it. What makes Vietnam so special is the distinct variety in scenery. In little under two weeks we’ve explored karst mountain bays, mountain ranges, French colonial architecture and jungle terrains. Travelling from Sapa to Hue involved countless hours on a bus and yet another sleepless night, but by 7:30am on the 18th May we were in the old capital of Vietnam, Hue. After walking a couple of miles in the blistering morning sun we reached our hostel. After checking in we headed straight out to explore Hues most famous landmark, the citadel. Hue being quite a small city with a population of around 400,000 people the majority of its main tourist attractions reside inside the citadel walls. It was built for the Vietnamese royals between 1804 and 1833. There were lots of captivating landmarks that charmed your imagination as you walked around. Firstly, you walked through a Ngo Mon Gate which is one of 10 entrances into the citadel which is adjacent to the flag tower which can be seen for miles around Hue. As we walked through the gate over the bridge we saw an abundance of lotus pads in the moat below. As we approached the Imperial Enclosure which was home to the emperor of Vietnam we were able to see the damage that the Vietnam war had on the site as most of its buildings were devastatingly destroyed by bombing, some however do remain.
As we walked around we saw the Thai Hoa palace that was a ceremony room, the Royal theatre before heading to Co Ha Gardens for some lunch. I had the most measly spring rolls I’ve ever had which were the size of a pencil sharpener but it didn’t annoy me too much as the view of the gardens were astounding. As we exited the gardens we saw the Forbidden Purple city, which is nothing like the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
This looked like someone had just opened up a building site in the middle of a big field but of course the real reason was that it was destroyed heavily with only some organisation of stones remaining. Dien Tho Residence was where the Queens mother resided during the Nguyen Dynasty (1804-1945). This led onto the To Mieu Temple Complex which was my favourite part. A Buddhist temple, a beautiful pavilion and Nine dynastic urns lay here for admiration. Each urn dedicated to a Nguyen sovereign which had engravings of animals, landscapes and natural wonders.
After a full on day exploring this historic site we rewarded ourselves with a few to many beers at this bar which was to become our local watering hole for the forthcoming couple of nights. It was a bizarre set up of Vietnamese military men owning the establishment serving you beer and an old guy playing pool…and us. That was literally its customer base for the next 3 nights, but we loved it.
The following morning the tropical torridness of the Vietnamese sunshine bore down to our frail heads. We went on a river cruise down the Perfume river stopping off at different destinations. Firstly we went to An Hien Garden House which was a traditional Vietnamese House apparently. It was noticeably different to Thai houses with no religious artefacts in the house whatsoever. I asked someone why this was and he explained that 85% of Vietnamese people don’t believe in religion, but that’s not because it is a communist state they believe it because during the times of famine and illness, the people who prayed to God realised nothing was changing and their lives were still miserable. Until Ho Chi Minh they’re beloved saviour (who is a real life flesh and bone hero) sorted the country out and created opportunities for people to be able to eat again. So the Vietnamese started to believe in something material rather than something (or someone) fraudulent, for the lack of a better word. Smart people. Afterwards we visited Thien Mu Pagoda which was beautiful and very peaceful.
Buddhas birthday was on the 14th May (same as my birthday) so there were lots of celebratory monuments and flags around which gave it a compelling edge. On the West Bank of the perfume river we reached Minh Mang tomb, we were about 12km from Hue now. Minh Mang was the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. His tomb was ridiculously big covering 28 acres. Believe it or not it took them 14 years to find the perfect place for him to be buried and a further 3 years to build it, by then time he was dead so it got built by Thieu Tri which was the following emperor. The grounds and moats of this place was inspiring to wander around.
After lunch we went to another tomb that was dedicated to Khai Dinh who was the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty who lived until 1925. By this time though the French were fully in control of Vietnam so Khai Dinh had virtually no power or influence in Vietnam so his tomb was built to ‘show off’ his counterfeit meaningful reign. Georgia made a great analogy and said it looked like the scene of a Lara Croft Movie or Game which it totally does.
On the way back to Hue we went to a incense stick making factory which was cool. The guy explaining the mechanics of how it works didn’t speak the most perfect English so I didn’t catch too much information about this, regardless it was an experience.
We woke up early today as we were going on an organised tour that was leaving at 7am. We drove 47 miles in the pouring rain to Dong Ha which is in the demilitarised zone of central Vietnam, home to some of the most epic and devastating battles in the Vietnam war. Dong Ha was home to a large military base for the Americans during the war and now is a bustling, regeneration of a city. We drove towards the Lao border passing some historic landmarks. First was the ‘Rock Pile’ which was the control and command centre of the American Marines that monitored the stabilisation of the DMZ area during the Vietnam War.
They would live here for 2 weeks at a time rotating shifts and have to endure to torrential downpour of the rain season as well as the scalding heat during the summer. Onwards we passed through the Bru Van Kieu ethnic minority village that was pleasant to look at which was close to Dakrong Bridge which was newly built to open up the Ho Chi Minh trail to Saigon.
This is where Viet Cong soldiers had to cross the Ben Hai river to get to the battleground to fight the Americans. Only 16km from Laos we reached Khe Sanh military base. This is a place I have always wanted to visit after reading Michael Herrs ‘dispatches’ where he describes his time in Khe Sanh during the war; “We never announced a scorched-earth policy; we never announced any policy at all, apart from finding and destroying the enemy, and we proceeded in the most obvious way. We used what was at hand, dropping the greatest volume of explosives in the history of warfare over all the terrain within the thirty-mile sector which fanned out from Khe Sanh. Employing saturation-bombing techniques, we delivered more than 110,000 tons of bombs to those hills during the eleven-week containment of Khe Sanh.” I felt very touched to be walking around the site of one of the most infamous combat sites in the entire world. Looking at the mist covered mountains surrounded by treacherous jungle I could only imagine how agonisingly painful it must of been to be based here, especially with the amount of Malaria infested mosquitoes swarming around you.
Our last stop was the Vinh Moc tunnels. It was built by the Vietnamese to house 600 people for a 6 year period. It was an extensive tunnel complex that had 3 floors, one 10 metres below ground, the second 15 metres and the third 23 metres below ground. I had to crouch and protect my head the whole time it was that small, it definitely was not for the faint hearted but as we made our way though we exited onto a beach where they would wash and get fresh air after dark or before dusk. It reminded me of a Cornish beach.