Hue Diary #2: The City & The Beach

As I said in my previous post, my sister and I only had 3 days in Hue, and since we were traveling with my niece and nephew, we couldn’t possibly drag them to all the historical places without boring them to tears, so we added in some kids-friendly activities as well. After a full day of sightseeing, we went on a boat ride on the Perfume River and enjoyed live performances of traditional Hue music. The kids didn’t care much about the music, but they were greatly tickled by the idea of riding on a dragon boat.

The Perfume River at sunset

Truong Tien bridge, seen from our boat

We then ended the evening with some chè (Vietnamese sweet soups/puddings). Hue is famous for its chè, with the roadside stalls that line the river banks boasting over 20 different flavors. It’s impossible to choose just one, so we had a sample of everything, tapas-style, before having another round of our favorites.

The next day, we headed to Lang Co, a beach resort town some 70km south of Hue. The beach here is so calm and clean, and again, quite empty of people, that even a hydrophobic like me had to go for a dip.

The beach is postcard-perfect

And the sunsets and sunrises are the best!

Finally, it was time to return to Hue and the airport to go home. I managed to snatch some time before our flight to wander around our hotel to snatch some photos of the city – I love how all the houses here are nestled amongst gardens and plants, even though they’re in the middle of a city. It’s little details like that that give Hue its dreamy, idyllic air and bring people back – I know I will have to return some day for a proper tour that does the city justice!

The river is so clean

Cute local houses

Hue Diary #1: Imperial City, Royal Palace & Mausoleum

Last weekend, my sister and I took a trip to Hue, a city in Central Vietnam and our former capital from 1802 to 1945. It was partly to celebrate our birthdays (our birthdays are close to each other so we tend to combine the celebration) and partly to give my niece and nephew a much-needed vacation. My sister and I have been to Hue before, but that was ages ago, and this was our first big trip since the pandemic, so naturally we were all excited. However, there was a recent spike in the number of COVID cases, so we could only get away for 3 days. Still, that was definitely enough to check out all the important sites of this lovely little city (if you love history and city exploration though, I’d recommend a week.)

Our first stop was the Imperial City, home to the Nguyen dynasty, the last feudal dynasty of Vietnam. Our hotel is within walking distance of the citadel, and there are so many trees that despite the hot sun, it was quite a nice walk. The citadel was neglected after 1945 and heavily damaged during the two wars, so there are still many empty/ruined places, but it gives the place a melancholic feel that I quite like. Another big plus is that there weren’t many people around. The main attraction – Thai Hoa palace, where the Emperor held court – being under renovation may account for the lack of tourists. We went to Dien Tho palace and Truong Sanh palace (residences of the Empress and Dowager Empress) and hardly saw anybody.

The main gate of the Imperial City

The temple dedicated to all 13 Nguyen Emperors

Inside the temple

A typical traditional outfit for Hue women (this particular shade is known as “Hue purple”)

The gallery surrounding Can Chanh Court, where the Emperor worked

The court itself was sadly destroyed in 1947 – this is all that remains

Later that day, we went outside the city to visit the Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc – there are four noteworthy mausoleums in Hue (those of Emperors Gia Long, Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh) but Tu Duc’s is the best both in terms of style and scope. Set on a hillside and surrounded by pine trees, it is not just a place of burial but also a place of rest and relaxation for the Emperor while he was alive.

The mausoleum’s grounds

The main entrance

The entrance to the Emperor’s tomb (but not where he was actually buried. For superstitious reasons, most of the Nguyen emperors were buried in secret places)

If you have the time, the Mausoleum of Emperor Khai Dinh is also worth a visit for its wild mix of French and traditional Vietnamese styles, but since my sister and I have both been there before, we decided to check out a lesser-known site – An Dinh Palace. It was built by Khai Dinh in 1917 while he was the Crown Prince, and later became the residence of his son, Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam. It has the same mix of architectural styles, and there is still some original furniture to give you an idea of how they used to live back then, which I always enjoy. Also, it’s inside the city and doesn’t require a lot of time, and when you’re traveling with kids, that is always a plus.

Exterior of the palace

And the very Westernized interior

I thought the walls were papered – but they are actually painted by hand!

A totally-not-creepy room I found on the second floor (the palace is still being renovated, so there are many locked rooms)

More to come in the next post!

A Day Trip To Duong Lam

I’ve been complaining that my wandering feet are getting itchy. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t traveled anywhere outside of Hanoi (let alone outside the country) since last year, and barely left my house during the Lunar New Year break. Luckily, after the break, the number of cases in our country started to go down again, so one weekend, my sister and I decided to take a quick day trip to Duong Lam, an ancient village (or, rather, a collection of 9 hamlets) just outside of Hanoi. My sister and I share a love for historical houses, so this village, with its 300-year-old houses (still inhabited!), quiet alleyways, and somber temples under the branches of ancient trees, is right up our alley.

The village gatehouse, built under a banyan tree – a symbol of Vietnamese countryside

A typical house

Peach blossoms at the main village temple

We had a great time just wandering down the alleys, dropping into old houses that caught our attention (most of them are open to visitors and the owners are more than happy to tell you about their history; you just have to pay a general entrance fee at the village gate.) We brought my niece, nephew, and their cousins along as well, and although there isn’t much for kids in the village, they, too, had fun running around the fields and being in the countryside.

The countryside around the village

The earthenware jars are to collect rainwater, or, more likely, to make soy sauce

The temple of one of Vietnam’s kings, Ngo Quyen, who came from the area

This row of trees is said to have been there since the 10th century and where the King kept his war elephants

A calligraphy artist selling his works outside the temple (during the Lunar New Year, people often buy calligraphy of auspicious words, for good luck)

We also made some buffaloes out of banyan leaves for the kids (these buffaloes are a traditional toy, and it is the Year of the Buffalo, after all)

All in all, it was a good trip and helped to quench my wanderlust a little bit. With vaccination underway, hopefully there will be more and longer trips to come this year!

A Week In Da Nang

It has become kind of a tradition with my family to take a week-long vacation in early summer. Since most of us work in academia, it’s the most convenient time (later in the summer we would be busy preparing for the upcoming semester); plus, the kids won’t have to wait too long for their vacation.

This year our destination is Da Nang, a city in Central Vietnam best known for its beaches. Most travelers skip it altogether or only use it as a transition point between two more popular destinations – the ancient capital of Hue and the old town of Hoi An – but we’re all about avoiding the crowd, so to Da Nang it is.

To shake things up, we also decided to take the train instead of flying. Sure, the trip takes 15 hours instead of 1,5, but it’s fun to sleep on the train (we had an entire compartment to ourselves), and you can catch some epic sunrise and sunset too.

Sunset over Thanh Hoa

Sunrise on the way to Hue

Another great thing of train travel is you get to go through the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, the most beautiful coastal road of Vietnam (called “a ribbon of perfection” by Top Gear). You can’t get views like these from a plane:

Our first glimpse of Da Nang from the train

In Da Nang, we rented an apartment right by the beach. It’s in a newer part of town, so we had the beach almost to ourselves. To avoid the sun, we only went to the beach very early in the morning (I’m talking about 5 AM early) or late in the afternoon.

The beach in the afternoon…

… and in the morning

If you go early enough in the morning, you can see the fishermen coming back with their catch in distinctive basket boats. You can even buy their fish – it doesn’t get fresher than that!

A fisherman’s motorbike and his gear

A make-shift fish market on the beach

You can also see a lot of wedding photo shoots

My niece and nephew’s beach combing haul

Of course, being so close to the famous old town of Hoi An (it’s only 30 km away), we had to take a day trip there as well. However, it wasn’t easy with two kids in tow, so I didn’t get to see as much of the town as I’d wanted. I’ve been there once before, but that was years ago and I didn’t remember much of it, except that it was very pretty. It’s still pretty now, like a more compact version of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, only with Chinese and Japanese influence on the architecture rather than French. Unfortunately, it was also very hot and insanely crowded. Otherwise, I would’ve gone back there by myself to really explore the place.

Typical Hoi An scenes

One of the many Chinese temples and assembly halls of Hoi An

There are also plenty of day trips and hikes that can be taken from Da Nang, but I was feeling lazy, so I just wandered around the waterfront area of the city, which isn’t far from our apartment. It’s a great place for people watching, and when Da Nang’s many bridges, the most famous of which is Dragon Bridge, are lit up as darkness falls, it is quite an impressive sight.

Dragon Bridge during the day

… and at night

Our answer to Singapore’s Merlion

Da Nang’s skyline

All in all, it was a good trip. I still prefer the “discover and explore” type of travel, but it’s fun to just relax once in a while.

A Week In Buon Ma Thuot

I just got back from a week-long trip with my family to the city of Buon Ma Thuot, the biggest city of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It’s in the same region as Da Lat, but it’s less of a touristy place, which was why we chose it as more of a getaway destination for some relaxing time rather than a place for dicovery. Plus, we were traveling with my niece and nephew, so a slower pace is much better for them. I appreciated it as well – I had the misfortune of getting sick right before we left, which means I spent the first three days being high on cold medicine and the next three days coughing my lungs out, so the slower pace allowed me to at least enjoy myself to some extent.

Just because Buon Ma Thuot isn’t a touristy place doesn’t mean that it’s short on sights. Within the city, you can visit the Dak Lak Museum (Dak Lak being the province of which Buon Ma Thuot is the capital city) with its awesome architecture, the hunting lodge of the last emperor of Vietnam, and the various Roman Catholic churches and Buddhist temples. Most of these are designed to mimic the traditional “longhouses” of the Central Highlands ethnic people, so they’re really cool.

The central square of Buon Ma Thuot

Dak Lak Museum

The hunting lodge (an art class was having a field trip there on the day we visited)

An ancient camphor tree on the museum’s grounds

A former royal Buddhist temple

The bishopric of Buon Ma Thuot – note the traditional design of the building

Some traditional houses in the suburb

Outside of the city, there are more natural sights. There’s Buon Don (‘buon” means village), well-known for its domesticated elephants and the Srepok River, there’s the Dray Nur waterfall and Lak Lake, the second largest fresh water lake in Vietnam. You can hike around, or just pack a picnic and enjoy the cool shades by the water, which is what we did.

Srepok River

Dray Nur waterfall

A corner of Lak Lake

Another thing Buon Ma Thuot is famous for is its coffee – it’s known as the “capital of coffee” of Vietnam. Unfortunately, I don’t drink coffee, and we were there in the wrong season to see the plantations – they’re best when the plants are in bloom (around March) or when the coffee cherries are harvested (around November). On the other hand, if you want to see the waterfalls, the river, and the lake, the rainy season is better. The weather was super nice anyway – the rain mostly came at night; during the day, it was clear and sunny – so I didn’t mind.

And finally, as is the tradition, let me end this post with a photo of a local cat: