From old emperor’s capital to the “Big bowl of rice”

After a long and exhausting train ride from Hanoi to Sapa and back, we decided to travel south by plane. And we made the right decision: the east coast of Vietnam was caught in a typhoon that would have extended the already long 13-hour train ride. So we flew to Hue with Vietnam Airlines. Hue was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperor’s and the national capitol between 1802 and 1845. The main attraction is a vast, 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines, the Forbidden Purple City, that was once emperor’s home, and a replica of the Royal Theater. Hue had been recognized as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. If you’re a history buff or simply love discovering exotic cultures, Hue as Vietnam’s former Royal Capital is definitely on the top of your travel plan. Complex of monuments, tombs and pagodas attract tourists from all over the world. Hue owns its charm partly to its location on the Perfume River, that splits the city in two. The river is supposed to be picturesque on a clear day. During our stay in Hue in October we unfortunately experienced a lot of rainfall. Due to extreme rain the river was anything but perfume like. It was dirty, brown and not appealing by the smell. But there are many of little dragon-like boats anchored and give the city special charm. Four of us each paid a dollar each for a one-hour cruise on the river. Thinking we made a good deal, we accepted, but weren’t prepared for the shopping. Instead of observing the sights the owner tried to sell us bags, wallets, paintings, beer … The next day was dedicated to exploring the citadel. Visiting the city walls is a must. Inside the walls there is a Forbidden Purple City, a partially preserved temple, that was once a home to emperor Minh Mang. We also visited pagodas and tombs of different emperors, for instance Tu Doc, Minh Mang and Khai Dinh tombs. They are mesmerizing due to relief sculptures.

Next stop is graceful, historic Hoi An. It is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town. Hoi An is a little paradise for every traveler. Enjoy the beautiful scenery, delicious food, history, unique shopping and much more. It is a charming city full of colorful lanterns, yellow facade, galleries, antique shops and around 500 tailor shops. The center of Hoi An is small and pedestrianized, so you will be walking around most of the time. Tailor shops are basically on every step, an obvious must-do in Hoi An is getting fitted for tailor-made clothes. It’s easy, you just say what kind of dress you want, choose fabric, they take your measurements, you pay ten-something dollars and you can pick up your new clothes already the next day. On the last day when we were in a hurry to catch the bus they made me a coat in only three hours.

After a short one night stop in sea-side town Nha Trang (we relaxed by the ocean, had a massage) our journey through Vietnam continued in Da Lat. A city in central highland that lies at more than 1500 meters above sea level is a popular honeymoon destination for Vietnamese newlyweds. A temperate climate and fertile soil have earned Da Lat the nickname “city of eternal spring” and it is one where the flowers bloom, birds sing, the air is clean, fresh and redolent of pine. Like true Vietnamese we rented motorbikes and joined the receptionist in our hostel for a bike tour of the picturesque countryside. First we made a stop in a small village that is a home of our guide’s family. He told us his shocking story. His biological father lost his life in the Vietnam war and he was adopted by a soldier that his father meet in the war, despite they fought for different sides. While driving we could admire the natural beauty of the highlands. We visited a cricket farm, where the ones with least sensitive stomachs afford a snack – crickets with ketchup. They told me crickets taste similar to French fries, but I rather skipped this not so attractive snack.

Before reaching our last stop – a small village where our guide’s second family resides, we have also stopped at a silkworm farm. In the village we had opportunity to learn more about the lives of villages. Inside the small, old house we were greeted by smiling and wrinkled faces of old ladies. They introduce themselves and we told our names, ages and country’s we’re from. Of course the guide translated everything. Then he learned them how to introduce in English and also how to sing a Cranberries song Zombie. We had a good time observing 60 plus Vietnamese ladies singing: “In your head, in your head … Zombie! Zombie! …” We’ve learned about their lives in the village. The biggest income represents rice and coffee, women are in charge in the house, they do the majority of tasks, they also need to get water from a couple of meters’ deep fountain, however women don’t decide who to marry, but the men pick their wife, bride’s family needs to give a water buffalo and money. Our guide’s sister prepared a delicious lunch with rice noodles, tofu, vegetables and fruit as dessert. She explained life of young Vietnamese. Despite the heat young women wear masks over the mouth and long white gloves up to the elbow. The trend is to be more like Europeans or “frog eyes” as they call us. So not too tanned. Those with more money even operates their eyes and lips to look more Western. The next day we drove uphill to Thien Voung and Linh Phuoch pagoda and we also visited a Love valley, kind of amusement park with flowers and bushes in the shape of hearts.

Our last stop in Vietnam was the biggest city in Vietnam, though not the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. During the French colony it was the capital. It is known as Paris or pearl of Orient. If Hanoi is a capital that is slowly waking up, developing and opening to the world, Ho Chi Minh City is more experienced and more developed metropolis. This seven million city is buzzing with energy. It is a chaotic whirl. The city center is accessible by walking. Wander through timeless alleys and temples caught between 21st-century skyscrapers. Avenues might remind you of those in Paris. If traffic in HaNoi seemed crazy, don’t let me mention traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Bike next to bike. From Saigon we went to explore Cu Chi tunnels. It is a network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat as well as serving as communication and supply routes, living quarters for many Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel system was of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces. It is a network of about 120 kilometers long tunnels in which Vietnamese soldiers were hiding and living. To lure them out, Americans used deadly gas. While guiding us through the outside museum, the guides have showed us how a young soldier could easy hide inside the tunnel in less than a minute while also covering his tracks. We also saw different traps used in the combat that disabled or even killed the enemy. There is an option to experience live for couple of minutes inside the tunnel. We climbed down the one that is open for tourists. The tunnels are tight, it smells of humidity, total darkness, feeling of fear. Even though the tunnel is only hundred meters long, it is hard to crawl on your knees and I went out after the half of it. You cannot help but think how it was to soldiers who were hiding in these tunnels during the war.

Before leaving Vietnam we decided to explore the Mekong delta. Mighty river Mekong is known as one of the world’s largest rivers. It starts out as a trickle in snowbound country around 5200 meters in Tibet and continues its 4500 kilometers long way through Indochina to the South of Vietnam where it meets the see. Area around the river is extremely fertile, the reason why Mekong delta is known as a “big bowl of rice”. It is a world of endless rice fields, tropical fruit plantations, many palms and countless river channels. We sailed on the river with a small boat, passing palms, losing in various shades of green of the nature and brown of the river. While sailing the guide explains the life in communist Vietnam. Facebook, for instance, is forbidden, talking against government is also punishable. We stooped on a small island, ate lunch but unfortunately the clear skies suddenly changed, big dark clouds appeared and we witnessed pouring rain. The river level started rising, we had to take off the shoes while going back on the boat.

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