Day 19: Hoi An to Hue

by - May 15, 2011

If anybody saw the Top Gear where they went to Vietnam, I unintentionally spent most of my day doing a carbon copy of the most scenic part of their journey.  It is only now that I am in my final destination - Hue that I can appreciate just what a selling point that the programme is for the wonderful 3 hour journey along mountain roads is.  There are pictures of the Top Gear team everywhere.  The great thing is that the journey was a by-product of the fact that I wanted to see both Hoi An and Hue and that I needed some form of transport between them.  I met one of the Easy Riders at Danang station a few days ago, as I have already mentioned, and when he offered to take me on the journey it seemed like a truely spontaneous travelling moment that fitted into my itinerary perfectly!

I was picked up at the hostel by Tuan, my driver (biker?), who suggested we could start by travelling to Danang to the sculpture museum.  It seemed that we had a lot of free time to see sites so I spent half an hour or so looking at the various sculptures from the ‘Cham’ era of Vietnamese history.  I hadn’t had time to go to the nearby ruins of the Cham citadel at 'My Son’ (pronounced mee-son), so I felt that the museum would be a good alternative.  The journey along the coast from Hoi An to Danang is only made vaguely interesting by the mountains in the distance and every now and then by beaches to the east.  Most of the land surrounding 'Highway 1’ is taken up by newly built golf courses, five star hotels and villa complexes, with the odd impoverished village thrown in the mix.

It is only to the north of Danang that the spectacular journey really started.  We quickly rose into the mountains along winding roads that were a delight to do on a motorbike.  There weren’t many other cars around as a tunnel had been cut through the mountains for a quicker but less scenic route.  The views were unbelievable - rainforest covered mountains tower over rice paddies that slope gently down to pristine golden sand beaches.  The great thing about doing it on a motorbike, apart from the whole 'wind rushing through your hair’ thing, is that you are free to stop and take photos.  At the highest point there is a pretty ugly American bunker and a few cafes which seemed ideal to stop at to admire the view. To the north and to the south, the view was just the same.  Interestingly one of the beautiful islands that we had passed used to be a leper colony - and I think the fact that I was contemplating finding and licking a leper goes a long way to describing how stunning the area was.  I realised that I had been riding along grinning with an enjoyment which was only partially down to thinking up the aforementioned leper joke.

On the other side of the mountains we passed through pretty fishing villages and over just as pretty (in my opinion) steel bridges which traverse the numerous streams that head down towards the sea.  We stopped for lunch in one of these villages at a very busy 'restaurant’ - you have to travel in Asia to realise that most so called restaurants are really just houses with a kitchen that is open to the public.  The food was good and the pork crackling was some of the best I have ever had.  Tuan asked me about myself and made me promise that I would bring Ellie back, when he found out that I have a girlfriend.  The Easy Riders are happy to lend you a bike and act as a guide for couples.

As we approached Hue (pronounced 'Hooway’ but with a short 'oo’) the scenery went a bit more urban, but with a fair bit of time left in the day Tuan took me to a few sites on the outskirts of the city.  Hue, situated on the wonderfully named 'Song Huong’ - Perfume River, is the spiritual heart of Vietnam as it served as the capital from 1802-1945.  It was the home of the Emperor, who lived in the imposing Citadel, which I shall be exploring tomorrow.  The emperors are buried in vast tomb complexes around the edge of town and Tuan took me to spend an hour or so in one of the grander tombs - belonging to Tu Duc.

I don’t know anything about how good an Emperor Tu Doc was (I am even assuming that he was an emperor) but the site on which he is buried is tremendously peaceful.  A little boating lake had been made in the middle of the site and I sat in a pagoda beside it for a good half hour to get out of the sun.  I had to wear trousers today as I stupidly got pretty badly sunburnt on the beach and I have never been so warm.  To give you a graphic and disgusting idea of the heat, I had sweat patches on my knees.  Thankfully a lot of the rest of the tomb complex was under the cover of trees and I cooled down completely when I was back on the bike.  Before he dropped me off at the hostel Tuan showed me one last sight.  This was the Thien Mu Pagoda, which dated back to 1601 and more famously was the home of Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire to protest against South Vietnamese policy towards Buddhists.  It is that amazing, if horrific, image of the monk sitting perfectly still as he burned to death.  This car is located at the pagoda as a memorial - famous because he just got out of the car at a crossroads and lit the match.

After this last worthwhile stop I headed to my hostel to sit and read in the shade.  Before Tuan left to go back home again he gave me his details so I can contact him in the future if I come back, which I certainly plan to do.  Pizza for dinner (a first on the trip) before an early night.  Tomorrow I am exploring Hue before getting the sleeper train to the capital, Hanoi.

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