26.10.2013 38 °C
Back on the Reunification Express heading to DaNang, some further 600km north up the coast. Quickly leaving NhaTrang behind me… which is exactly where I want it. I didn’t have a great experience in NhaTrang and quite glad to be leaving. I settle into my sleeper berth for the overnight 12 hour journey hoping that my next destination will prove to be a better experience.
The following day I stepped off the train into DaNang. It was midday and incredibly hot already, the traffic intense and noisy. I headed to the river front in a metered taxi to find my hotel for the next few days.
DaNang is one of the major port cities in Vietnam and the 4th largest city in terms of population making it the central coasts’ largest centre. The city sits on the South China Sea at the mouth of the Hàn River and is the commercial and educational heart of central Vietnam.
The city itself dates back to the early Champa Kingdom in 192AD. At its peak, the Chams' sphere of influence stretched over most of central Vietnam. In modern times this is where the French first landed in the 19th Century in their quest to control the area and where US forces established a large air base during the Vietnam war.
Almost immediately I like this place, the vibe feeling good and the people friendly. No one has tried to rip me off yet. The roads are broad and inviting, the boulevards that run along the river front are clean and filled with quaint little riverside cafes. The mix of old and new buildings in many parts of the city gives you a real sense of how much this place has changed over the years. A lot of money has been pumped into this city and it shows. The local government wants to turn it into Vietnam's most liveable city.
You don’t get hustled continuously and the city has a relaxed laid back feel to it. Even though DaNang is a large city, its peoples until recently had a reputation for being a bit provincial in attitude. This city hasn’t seen the massive development of other locations in Vietnam until recent years and just maybe this is why it’s so nice.
However, it’s changing fast and you see the new high-rise office blocks, hotels and restaurants flying up everywhere. They say if you leave and come back 12 months later you almost don’t recognise the place.
The beaches here are lovely too. Long stretches of white sand with clear water, sheltered within a large bay surrounded by mountains covered in rich green forests. One of the more famous beaches is My Khe, or China Beach. This beach was once an R&R location for American troops and today is still used for relaxing, and enjoying the sun. The beach stretches unbroken to Hội An, a charming historic city some 20km down the coast.
Clean waters and a reduced amount of beggars compared to other beaches in Vietnam make a refreshing change. In 2005 this beach was hailed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world by Forbes magazine and I can certainly see why.
I stayed for 5 day in DaNang then headed north again to Huế about 300km up the coast. Huế (pronounced ‘hway’) is an old historic city which should be worth seeing and from there I can catch a bus over the mountains and through the border crossing into Laos, not an easy or straight-forward leg but the only option if you don’t want to fly.
The train journey to Huế is magnificent, probably the most interesting stretch of the Reunification Express. The mountains and jungle come down to greet the coast, the train line dramatically winds its way around the thick rich green mountains and over magnificent bridges spanning deep canyons. The sea and occasional white sand beaches present below as we snake our way slowly up the mountain sides.
Unfortunately the sealed thick plastic windows on the train didn’t allow for any good shots, which is shame as this part of the journey was truly magnificent and dramatic.
I arrived in Huế and booked into the guesthouse I’d previously arranged. I’d been feeling a bit off-colour during the journey up and it was getting worse. Turns out it was the onslaught of a head cold… or rather, because I’m a man, full blown flu!
Feeling pretty ropey I went to ground for 2 days in my guesthouse. Only adventuring out to eat and fetch medicine. I’d brought an impressive assortment of drugs with me from Sydney to tackle a wide range of ailments, but alas nothing to help with a snooty head and hacking cough. It’s true that you should bring your own medicine to this region, what I bought in the nearby chemist was next to useless and expensive.
I resorted to eating lots of chillies to burn out the cold… this actually worked remarkably well and after a couple of days I was starting to feel better, although I’d developed a hacking cough which persisted for many weeks after. The sound of my cough familiar, resembling what I’d heard from several sources in the over packed train station on my way up.
During my delirium I’d had a good think about my next move and decided to completely change tack. Instead of spending the next two and half weeks slogging through Laos and North Thailand on slow busses and trains to eventually return to Bangkok, I decided to return to DaNang and spend my remaining time in Vietnam.
Sure I would miss Laos, which was regrettable but I was feeling exhausted with all the travel and wanted to relax and stay in one place for a while. Add to this I had made good friends in DaNang and was really enjoying Vietnam. So the newly formed plan went something like this; return to DaNang, then eventually make my way to Hanoi to get a flight back to Bangkok, this was certainly a more relaxed plan for my remaining few weeks here.
Before I returned to DaNang and after I’d recovered enough to adventure outside, I decided to spend a few hours sightseeing around Huế.
Huế being the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province and between 1802 and 1945 was the imperial seat of the Nguyễn dynasty. The city rose to prominence in the 17th century as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, a feudal dynasty which controlled and dominated southern Vietnam up until the 19th century. From around 1802 Lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh succeeded in controlling the whole of Vietnam thus making Huế the capital of Vietnam right up until 1945 when the Hanoi became the capital of the country.
The city sits on the banks of the Perfume River a few miles inland from the South China Sea. A picturesque and atmospheric river lined with many palaces and pagodas, tombs and temples. The most magnificent being the Citadel occupying a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. The Citadel being the seat of the Nguyễn emperors was a forbidden city where only emperors, concubines and the very close were granted access. The punishment for trespassing was death of course.
This place has a grand history of culture and cuisine and also heartbreak. The glories of imperial Vietnam are still seen here, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War. And sadly the massacre at Huế committed by the communist North during the Tết Offensive of 1968 leaves a bloody stain on its recent history.
There is also large market here which I spent a couple of hours walking around.
Back in DaNang
I return to DaNang feeling recovered after my bout of man-flu and looking forward to relaxing and enjoying the remainder of my time in Vietnam and Asia at a more moderate pace.
There are so many things that fascinate in this country, and I find myself slowly falling in love with this place of striking contradictions and beauty. It seems to me the more you delve and investigate the more you find, scratching the surface always presents deeper fascinations below. This is a culturally and historically complex country emerging head-first into the modern world, still finding its feet and identity after so much devastation and heartbreak. But you know what - they will do alright in this new world - never have I seen such a resilient and determined peoples.
Eating and drinking bia hoi style
Often the best cuisine is to be found on the street, Vietnam’s street food, just like the economy, has thrived in the past two decades. Colourful, light and bursting with flavour, it’s a vibrant yet subtle food that keeps flavours bright with the use of abundant fresh herbs and balanced chilli, nuoc mam fish sauce, lime juice and spices. The cooking has adopted many elements from two of the world’s great food cultures – French and Chinese – there is an obsession with fresh ingredients and dedication to detail. It can even be seen in the exacting technique of the street cook whipping up mouth-watering snacks from a kitchen that fits on a bike!
When you come here you really notice the bia hoi culture of eating and drinking on a street corner, often surrounded by the consistent buzz of motorbikes, cars and horns. This street eating culture originated in Hanoi along with the curious practise of using kid sized furniture to dine on. Small plastic chairs and tables sprawling out over pavements; I am not certain where this bizarre use of furniture came from but it is everywhere in Vietnam. You get used to eating with your knees higher than your backside, and for someone tall like me I may as well be squatting most of the time.
Bodhisattva of Mercy
Today we’re doing some sightseeing. Hồng, a friend I’ve met whilst in DaNang, is taking me on her motorbike to see a large Buddhist temple on a mountain overlooking the city.
It’s a hot clear day approaching late morning when Hồng arrives to pick me up on her scooter. She wears a face mask and long sleeved jacket, like so many of the woman in Vietnam.
When I first arrived in this country I mistakenly assumed the face mask was for protection against pollution in the air. But actually the mask, along with helmet and long sleeved jacket, are to protect against the sun. The women obsess with having pale skin, thinking it to be more beautiful and I’ve seen this all over the region, Vietnam is no exception.
We head off and ride through the city winding our way through the traffic, narrowly missing bikes and pedestrians as we make our way across town. The roads so thick with traffic you can reach out and touch three or more other motorists at any moment. Horns, brakes and throttle are used constantly. All I can think is were going to hit, shit we missed, look out!
It’s fair to say there are no road rules here, nobody gives way to anybody and everyone just angles, points and directly moves towards their destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. All vehicles are equally determined to get the right of way and sometimes swerve away at the last minute, giving inches to spare. That said it is amazing how it seems to flow and work, every driver continuously alert and ready to join this crazy flow of bikes and cars.
As a pedestrian it is no less exciting, there is a method to crossing roads here which until mastered will leave you teetering and scared at the side of the road, unable and too nervous to take the plunge. I remember early on, when I was still nervous crossing; an old granny came along side me on the sidewalk and just crossed without breaking step or looking either way, she strolled out into the sea of traffic seemingly oblivious. I quickly follow, mirroring and staying parallel until I reach the other side.
Until you get the hang of it mirroring is a good way to learn. Sometimes you get a friendly hand from a local, smiling and keen to escort you safely to the other side. The method is to just step out, make eye contact with the nearest approaching vehicle and keep walking. The first few times it takes nerve, but you soon get used to it. The traffic expects this and flows around you like a stone in a stream.
We were heading for a large Buddhist temple that overlooks the bay to do some sightseeing. The temple overlooking the city on the side of a mountain sports this massive Buddha standing at over 67 metres.
We rode out towards the beautiful green mountains which surround DaNang, leaving the busy city with its hair-raising traffic behind. I was thankful that Hồng was such an expert bike rider and was feeling safe as billiard. The scenery was great as we wound our way up the mountain in the mid-day sun; to our right the South China Sea, green and tranquil as it stretched out to distant islands on the horizon, to our left the mountains climb steep covered in rich green foliage.
Hồng chatted to me as we rode along pointing out sights and stopping for good photo opportunities, it was a glorious day and just perfect for a polariser.
We made it up to the temple and I was blown away by what I saw. We walked up a large set of stairs through giant gates and were greeted by a courtyard filled with gardens and large statues of Buddhist Gods. The trees sculpted like oversized bonsai resplendent with colourful flowers.
At the end of the courtyard was a large Buddhist temple. Taking off our shoes we went inside. Kneeling we prayed our respects to Buddha in front of a large colourful alter, it felt peaceful here and had a magical air to it. Surrounding the walls were large paintings telling the story of Buddha.
Outside is an impressive 67 metre statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy which overlooks the bay below, sitting in front is a large statue of Happy Buddha, fat and content as always with that big happy grin.
To finish we spent a few minutes in silence, almost in a trance, enjoying the magnificent views over the bay below.
Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism
A thing to admire about the Vietnamese is their tolerance with religious attitudes, there has never been religious fanaticism or religious warfare in Vietnam and officially the country is an atheist state. In government surveys over 81% of the population confess to being "non-believers", although many reported as “non-believers” in formal religions still have some adherence to informal religious customs and practices such as worshipping local spirits, gods and ancestors.
A very popular belief here is the custom of the ancestor cult. A legacy of the Chinese, in every household including hotels restaurants, an ancestor altar is installed in the most solemn location. And in true Vietnamese style beer is often served up as a gift.
Religion is far from clean-cut and simple in Vietnam. The three main religions, and the earliest established, are Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (called the three teachings or tam giáo). Also around 8% of the Vietnamese are Christians (mostly Catholics), and there are smaller minorities of adherents to Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism.
The religious belief of the common Vietnamese is a synthesis of the three traditional religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) which have been coexisting peacefully for centuries in Vietnam. This is very different to their regional neighbours Thailand and Cambodia where Buddhism is a state religion and followed by 95% of the populace.
The Vietnamese fear of ghosts and spirits, especially of the dead is common and I’ve seen this first hand with their irrational fear of water, all water and not just the sea. At first it seems quite crazy that a seafaring nation such as Vietnam, with so much of the country living on the coast and 16% of the country being rivers and lakes, should have such a fear.
Then you realise that most Vietnamese can’t swim and unfortunately drowning is by far the biggest killer of children in the country. Parents and children bathe at dawn and dusk across Vietnam but relatively few can swim. There is a fear of water and it is not normal for a family to teach the children to swim, because the parents can’t swim, because they are absolutely petrified of water.
Around DaNang there has been recent investment from the Americans and the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia to teach kids to swim at an early age which has certainly improved the situation considerably and the beaches, which come alive at dusk with bathing Vietnamese, have fenced off save swimming areas closely policed by life guards.
When a life is unfortunately lost to the water the Vietnamese will strictly avoid the area for fear of bad ghosts and demons until an appropriate ritual can be performed to expel them. The ritual needs to be held on the same day of the month as when the incident occurred and involves loud music and chanting from monks over a number of hours.
Traditionally in Vietnamese religious belief death does not mean the end. The dead move on to an afterlife in which things are the same as in the living world. The dead therefore need their home comforts like washing machines, mobile phones and new clothes. So the relatives buy effigies of the items and simply set fire to them and the objects are transferred to the afterlife in the smoke. Last year the Vietnamese government estimated that people spent around $20 million buying paper objects to burn.
The Journey’s End
Well I’ve spent nearly seven weeks in Vietnam, and over two and half months total travelling the Mekong region but now alas the time has come to end my journey and fly to the UK. I’ve had one of the best experiences of my life in this region, and although at times it has been hard going, it has also been a great adventure. The things I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, such a civilised place that will surely be missed.
The things I carried include a Nikon D7000 DLSR Camera with Nikor 18-55mm zoom and Nikor 55mm lens, a compact tripod with remote controls, a small 10inch laptop, used mainly for email, blog writing and storing images. The rest was clothes, toiletries and drugs (of the pharmaceutical kind only!).
Having a laptop computer with me was indispensible, there is free wifi all over the region and being able to use the internet to check on travel routes and read travellers forums on the way was a tremendous help, I don’t know how I could have done without. Certainly it would have been harder and I wouldn’t have found a lot of the places I visited, nor have been able to travel to them so easily.
I am sitting back in beautiful Wales as I write these last few paragraphs, so far and different from where I’ve been. It is nice to be back in the familiar and I do love this country but I keep wondering where all the smiles have gone…