Vietnam: From inner city Hanoi to the Mekong countryside Part 2: Hue and Hoi An

Thien Mu Pagoda along the Perfume river
Coming in an over night train from Hanoi, which didn’t really allow for much sleep, we arrived in Hue rather tired. Nevertheless we explored the town and the Purple City palace area, or what is left of it, by just walking around. The Purple City is a great complex of old buildings ranging from newly renovated ones to a pile of rocks. The entrance building and gate is particularly impressive. We spent a few hours exploring the palace after a warm up in the Imperial Museum.

The next day we went for a river tour on the Perfume River and to a few of the palaces in the area surrounding Hue. The trip itself was quite cheap (I think maximum 5 US$ per person for a full day) and we were told that the palaces all have their separate entrance feees. But nobody ever told us that we would not actually get to the palace unless we rent a scooter from the river side to the palace a few km away. We bascially had not choice but to pay up and go with the scooters. And of course the local knew this, so anyone who had a scooter in the local village made a living from taxing tourist to the local attraction. The scooter taxi charge could be anywhere between 8000dong to 20000dong one way, but in the spirit of travelling some gullible tourists can be charge as much as the driver demand from them if no price is negotiated before hand. So note future travellers who may read our story, "always set the price before sitting on any scooter taxi, or any sort of transportation in Vietnam", otherwise you could be charge at the discretion of the driver, and this can perfectly legal. This type of incident can leave a bitter taste, but the impressions otherwise were great.

We visited the famous Thien Mu Pagoda, which seems to have been involved in political trouble now and then in the past. Now it just looks like a nice and quiet temple area, with tourists swarming around unnoticed by the monks. Then we went to the Tomb of Tu Duc, which used to serve as his palace before he died. We enjoyed the tranquility of the palace with the jungle feeling, old palace buildings and the quiet lake. It must have been a really impressive place, when everything was intact and kept in order. Across the river we visited Hon Chien temple. We actually didn’t bother to enter, because we were meant to pay another entrance fee. Things didn’t look so great from the outside and we were ready for a quiet break on the riverside. From what our travel companions told us we didn’t miss anything. After a lunch on board our boat we went on shore again to visit the Tomb of Khai Dinh and the Tomb of Minh Mang. Both were really awesome palaces with a special "Mortal Combat" type feeling to it. We enjoyed the dragon roofs and statues and the general setting in the landscape a lot. After these temples our boat basically headed back to town.

After a break relaxing from a tiring day we decided to go out for a nice dinner. The day before we already had a very nice dinner at the Paradise Garden Restaurant, where two women and a man played some Vietnamese folk music, while we were having dinner. This evening we decided to head to the northern main part of town and visit the Tinh Gia Vien restaurant, which is famous for serving dishes in the style of Hue’s imperial court. These dishes are normally not vegetarian, but a simple question solved the problem. The simple question was actually a longer explanation about no seafood, no meat and so on … all in fluent Vietnamese from Yen. Cool! This seemed to become a bit of a necessity. I got all dishes in a vegetraian version. And these were really great. All dishes were sculptured to look like a dragon, a flower and so on. A "feast for the eye", the tummy and the kids in us. We had a great time in the restaurant surrounded by a beautiful bonsai garden and served by waitresses wearing the traditional Ao Dai (long dresses).

Another day .. another bus trip. We continued on to Hoi An to enjoy the laid back atmosphere of this small gem. On the way to Hoi An we stopped at the Marble Mountain south of Danang. This major marble production site is a feast for anybody interested in buying marble balls, marble figures and statues of any size and other must have items like marble chess sets. You can easily buy your live size lion statue for your garden or whatever too. You just gotta carry the heavy marble or get it home in some other way. We only bought two marble balls and a grinder and jumped back into the bus after some noodle soup. Now we wish we had bought a few other things, since everything was so nice and cheap.

After arriving and finding a place to stay in Hoi An, we wandered around town and through all the shops and workshops for a day. In one of the shops we saw our first real silk worm farm. We saw them in three different age stages as well as in the cocoon. It is amazing how big they are and how relatively easy it seems to handle them. They got a weird sort of mummy type white color too. The best thing however is how the coccoons are used to produce the silk. The worms had to be killed and taken out of the cocoon before they hatched, otherwise the cocoon would be damaged which means the silk could not be used. Then the cocoons are heated up in water and then you can just take a little string off the outer side from anywhere. When you take this string off many cocoons floating on the water you can attach them together and start colleting the silk on a spinning wheel. All you then have to do is keep spinning and all the cocoons are slowly rolled apart again, while they are floating and bobbing happily in the water bath. Amazing! And each cocoon would produce about 400m of silk string too.

Wandering more or less aimlessly around and checking out shops, temples, French colonial buildings, markets and stalls gets very tiring. And it made us hungry too. At dinner we were caught out in the rain and got pretty wet on the way back to our hotel. And the rain was still there the next day …