Greetings from the future!
After exploring the caves of Phong Nha, Chris and I were looking to do a bit of relaxing above ground. For this we headed to our next two destinations where some of the best beaches in Vietnam awaited: Hue and Hoi An.
The city of Hue (pronounced Hway) holds great historical significance in Vietnam. It served as the former capital under the Nguyen Dynasty Empire, the last dynasty in Vietnam, from 1802-1945. This time period overlapped with the French occupation of Vietnam (1858-1954). Though the French retained the Nguyen Empire, the French controlled the throne during this time. This changed in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist movement declared Vietnam’s independence and the last emperor abdicated the throne. This marked the beginning of Vietnam’s war with France, which lasted from 1945-1954.
The French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954 and the war came to an end with the signing of a peace treaty, called the Geneva Accord, the terms of which divided the country into two: North and South. The peacetime didn’t last long for Vietnam, as fighting between the South and North soon broke out. The U.S. sent advisors to aid the anti-communist South in their fight against the communist North, and this then segued into sending U.S. troops beginning in 1964, which marked the start of what is called the American War here in Vietnam as opposed to what we refer to as the Vietnam War back home. Hue’s location in the middle of Vietnam, between North and South, made it the city closest to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war.
Those last two paragraphs allude to a dense and complicated period of history, which, quite obviously, very much involved the U.S. Being of the post-Vietnam war generation, my schooling didn’t cover this piece of U.S. history in great detail. Most of my generation’s understanding of the Vietnam War likely either comes from family members that were involved or movies, e.g. Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. I believe Chris aims to unpack this history in a later post, but for now if you want to read more about key events in Vietnam’s modern history, I’ll refer you to this simplified timeline from the BBC.
Bottom line, there is a lot of historical sight seeing to be done in Hue. Chris and I planned on partaking in extensive historical tourism while in Ho Chi Minh City, so we focused our stay in Hue more on leisure. After all, we’d been traveling for a month and a half and had yet to hit a beach. I was craving some serious beach time, and for that, Hue delivered.
The beach is about 10 miles from downtown Hue, where we were staying. In fact, many backpackers don’t even realize there is a beach in Hue and wrongly deem Hue a rather dull town. We had been advised by travelers we met in Phong Nha that Hue had a beautiful beach, and we are grateful for the tip.
We arrived to our hotel in Hue in the morning. We ate a quick breakfast and set about figuring out how to traverse these 10 miles. First, we attempted to make the trip on bicycles, but the bicycles available to rent were too small for Chris, a re-occurring problem for him in this part of the world. At this point, we decided to do it the Southeast Asia way: by motorbike.
This marked the first time we rented a motorbike on our trip. It’s a common affair for backpackers in Southeast Asia. You need only do a quick survey of backpackers to notice the distinguishing mark of a muffler burn on the calves of many (get off the bike from the left side!). There are both manual and automatic bikes available; we opted for an automatic. With helmets fastened and fuel in the tank — fuel is obtained from roadside stands where gasoline is stored in soda bottles — we embarked for the beach!
After two wrong turns and several attempts to ask for directions to the beach — picture Chris and me wildly gesticulating different swimming strokes — we got set on the right path. [Side note: when Vietnamese people don’t know how to help you or don’t know what you’re talking about, they do this hand gesture where they shake their extended and open hand from side to side, somewhat like the hand gesture we would use to indicate if something was just “so so.” From our interpretation this gesture can mean either simply “I don’t know” or “I can’t help” or when paired with an expression of irritation verging on anger, “Leave me the hell alone,” and “Why are you addressing me in English, we speak Vietnamese here, idiot.”]
After about 20 minutes, we arrived to a private beach called, “Beach Bar Hue,” which was associated with a hotel and bar with the same name. [Another side note: On our way to the beach, we passed by a cemetery, which at first I didn’t recognize as a cemetery because of the brightly colored temple-like shrines that serve as grave markers — much different from the muted gray and black gravestones that fill our cemeteries back home.] We had to pay the equivalent of $5 to access the beach, for which we received a voucher for the same amount, which could be used for food or drink; it was a good deal and permitted entrance to a beautiful and quiet beach without too many people. We spent two days at the beach and would return to the city in the evening where we had the option of quaint cafes, a single late-night bar called “Brown Eyes” and ample street food options.
It was while in Hue that we gradually noticed the celebratory decorations adorning the city center and growing crowds of domestic tourists. Even more apparent to us were the rise in prices of accommodations and motorbike rentals. Our hotel staff alerted us that a holiday was approaching; it would last a week. What was the holiday celebrating, we asked in ignorance. The staff awkwardly danced around this question …
As it turned out, we unknowingly stumbled upon the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Americans, the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam … oh that holiday.
Traveling in Vietnam as an American brings with it some mixed feelings … a heightened sense of national awareness, remorse for something that happened before I was born, and admiration for hardships overcome. Tourism is the backbone of Vietnam’s economy, and people are nothing but nice and accommodating to American tourists. Still, it’s hard to overlook the myriad reasons the Vietnamese have to be less than welcoming to us Americans. Sure, the war is in past … but is it? Landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs) continue to kill and injure people everyday — not just in Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos as well. The aftermath of Agent Orange continues to plague the Southern Vietnamese. I’ll write more on this when we get to Ho Chi Minh City, but for now I’ll say that traveling during the anniversary heightened this awareness.
On the practical side of things, it made booking travel and accommodations extremely challenging. For instance, twice we showed up to a hotel where we had a reservation and they had just simply given our room away, no problem. As was the case when we arrived in Hoi An. This was a low point.
We arrived to our guesthouse to find two British couples already in a heated argument with the staff, and soon discovered we’d all suffered the same fate: reservations but no rooms. Luckily, all six of us were able to find lodging at a brand new hotel with rates way cheaper than they could have charged since they had just opened for business that very day, so things worked out in the end.
It’s worth noting that the garment industry is a big tourist draw in Hoi An. For a comparatively cheap price to what you’d pay back home, you can choose your own fabric and materials and get suits, dresses, shoes and accessories made. Though we thought about doing this, we ultimately decided we didn’t want to get something nice made only to stuff it in our packs and travel with it for the next two months. You can also ship things home, but it sounded like too much of a hassle. It should also be noted that there are other great beach spots in Vietnam, including Nha Trang and Phu Quoc Island, but we skipped out on those because there is only so much you can see and do when traveling. Besides, other great beaches in Cambodia and Thailand still await, so all in good time!
One last thing before I go for now — I want to sing the praises of a cafe called Fusion in Hoi An. It featured a menu that seemed made for me. I had a green juice (cucumber, celery, ginger, spinach and cayenne pepper) and a watercress salad with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and mango. I felt right at home.
Here are our photos from Hue and Hoi An: