Aidan Lawes shares his experience of Hué and Hoi An in central Vietnam with CD-Traveller
Neither Hué nor Hoi An are on the reunification express railway line. We reached them by disembarking at Da Nang and driving the 20km or so south to Hoi An. My father was amused to hear that my tour took in Da Nang which to him was only a USAF base, and indeed as we drove out of town the enormous concrete hangers were still clearly visible. However, nearly everything else has changed: glittering five-star resorts now take up every inch of the shoreline. We spent no time at all in Da Nang itself as Thao, our guide, didn’t think it warranted any attention. From what I could gather, it’s largely a resort and golf centre for people from all over South East Asia who visit for anything from a few days to a few weeks to relax and unwind.
Just outside Da Nang are the Marble Mountains –five hills that rise from an otherwise completely flat landscape. On one of these mountains is a Buddhist temple which offers amazing views over the town below. The temple itself is beautifully arranged around the natural rock, with stairs winding through rocky arches to the different sections of the temple. At the base of the mountain are numerous marble shops made from the famous milky white local stone. These shops export to all over the world, and will custom make you any statue of your choice including copies of anything you care to mention. Even factoring in shipping costs for what could be a ton of marble, the price is still a fraction of what it would cost for similar goods in Europe.
For me, Hoi An was one of the highlights of Vietnam. The town itself is very small – I walked from one side to the other in just over 30 minutes – and has no historical sights as such to visit. So why did I have such a good time? Hoi An is famous as a textile centre and in a few hours, you can have whatever you desire handmade from shoes to suits, leather jackets and couture dresses copied from Vogue. There are so many tailors it is hard to know which to choose. I decided to have two suits made at Yaly Couture on the advice of a friend. A suit there costs anything from US$120 to $350 for the best cloth they have. Yes, there are cheaper places to go: Thao, however, was very pleased with my choice saying it was the best tailor in the city and that my friend who had recommended it obviously had good taste. He was, however, a little taken back by the sight of me spending $600 in one hit – even after I had explained how much suits in London cost and that I have to wear a suit to work on a daily basis. You choose your cut by leafing through racks of pages cut from western magazines showing both adverts and photos of celebrities on the red carpet and in films. My Tom Ford copy is excellent – if only I looked like Daniel Craig too. For some reason, I didn’t buy any shoes. Writing this, I’m still not sure why: a pair of leather brogues was only $30 made from scratch for you in 12 hours. Anyone with the slightest interest in fashion and design or else who, like me, has to wear a suit should pencil in at least an afternoon letting their imagination run riot and indulging in bespoke craftsmanship which is so prohibitively expensive in the West. You really do feel like a king. Dangerously, the better tailors keep your measurements on their books for up to 3 years, so you can order more suits or shirts by email which are then fedexed directly to your home. Of course, this assumes that you haven’t put on a few kgs or grown an extra arm since your last fitting. I have yet to discover the shipping costs, but with a bespoke shirt of the finest cotton costing only $45, and lesser (but still excellent) fabrics only being $20, I think that presents a strong case for a bulk order.
There is much more to Hoi An than shopping though. The markets are very interesting, and offer different food to that in the south as well as different handicrafts. It also feels more relaxed being near the coast, and although there are a good many tourists there, I didn’t come across any large groups being marched around the noteworthy sights. There are fabulous and empty beaches only a few km from Hoi An town. It took us only 10 minutes to reach the beach by bike. Thao was of the opinion that the famous beaches in Nha Trang were better, but I don’t really see how this can be possible! After Vietnam, I ventured to Goa and no stretch of sand there could compete with Hoi An which to me is paradise.
Nightlife mainly revolves around food which is astonishingly cheap, with the main plate of chicken noodles coming in at under 50p! Even beer was a bargain. Why Hoi An should have been so much cheaper than the rest of already affordable Vietnam, I don’t know, but it definitely made me feel less guilty about having shopped in a manner more appropriate to the female members of my family. Our group of three spent all evening playing pool in a large pool hall. I never appreciated how hard it is to cue accurately when your hand is sweating from the heat – that’s my excuse anyway for my awful standard of play. We chatted with other locals and tourists and all agreed that Hoi An’s hotels were excellent in terms of quality and value for money.
Hué was very different. As an ex-capital of Vietnam, it is much larger than Hoi An and immeasurably more commercial. Arriving over one of the two bridges crossing the Perfume River, I almost felt like I was arriving back in Saigon. There were large neon signs advertising fast food, banks and Pepsi affixed to modern glass-fronted malls. Our hotel was enormous, probably 20 stories, and as I later found out, owned by the Vietnamese Government.
Hué has many historic sights, including the famous citadel from the imperial times. Despite sounding and looking ancient, this complex was only built in the 1800s and is purposefully and obviously based on Chinese citadels such as the Forbidden City in Beijing. At the centre of the complex are the Emperor’s private rooms to which only the most favored were admitted. From this central area radiate other areas separated by moats, bridges and large arches. As in the Chinese model, status of a person determined how close you could get to the centre. As mentioned before, it was such a disappointment to see areas of this citadel in a terrible state of repair. When UNESCO’s work is complete, I hope to visit again. Despite being at the centre of the civil war and targeted by the Americans, quite large portions of the citadel have survived albeit in places tattooed with bullet holes.
In front of the main gate into the citadel is Hué’s most famous landmark, the flag tower. Looking something like a Second World War fortification, its only purpose is to support the pole flying the biggest flag I have ever seen. Being on the banks of the river, it is easily visible as you enter the city and serves as a useful landmark if you forget which bridge you crossed. Hué’s more recent history centers around Ho Chi Minh, who lived in Hué, attended school there (then and still now arguably the best school in Vietnam) and taught in Hué for a few years before starting his travels. Opposite the entrance to the school is a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. Having a few hours to kill, I went in and found myself to be the only person there. It was an interesting little museum though, with a large number of personal artifacts, letters, and photos of Uncle Ho throughout his life. A few yards down the road is the building which used to be the French headquarters in the city, which is now the La Residence Hotel operated by Accor. That night we headed to the DMZ bar (so called as Hué is the nearest city to the DMZ from the war) which Lonely Planet raves about. Every inch of the walls and tables were covered in graffiti mostly left by backpackers. There was so much of it that there had to be a notice on the pool table kindly requesting visitors not to write all over the baize too.
Just outside Hue, we visited the Minh Mang mausoleum, just one of a number in the area. The Emperor spent 10 years searching for the perfect spot combining all the Buddhist requirements, and the setting he found is beautiful. It reminded me of a Capability Brown garden – so perfect did it look.
Read Aidan’s account of Hanoi, Halong Bay and Sa Pa tomorrow only on CD-Traveller