John and I decided a while back to schedule a tour for our time in Vietnam. We normally just plan our travel on our own, not wanting someone else to determine our schedule for us. The reason we opted for a tour in Vietnam is that we had read that Vietnam can be hard to navigate. Seasoned travelers and full-time bloggers who have been on the road for more than a decade have been frustrated in Vietnam, mostly due to scams. We felt that, with the oversight of a tour guide, we would be insulated from some of this.
It turns out that the tour we bought does not include a resident tour guide watching over us: we paid for a tour that is an a la carte program of hotels, drivers, flights, a cruise, and day tours, but we are not with a set group of people or a tour guide. But it turns out that this has been fine; we have enjoyed having the bookings made for us and we have not had issues with scams, in fact, we are having a wonderful stay in Vietnam.
The day in Hue
After time in Hanoi, followed by our Halong Bay cruise, we were flown to Hue (pronounced Hway), which is famous for being the capital of the Nguyen (pronounced “when”) dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The complex of the dynasty includes a citadel and an Imperial City, complete with palaces, shrines, and a Forbidden Purple City, which housed the king, his wives, and his eunuchs – the eunuchs were the only men allowed in the Forbidden Purple City so that the wives’ chastity was not threatened.
The entire Imperial City complex is massive and was once impressive. The problem now is that the place was bombed in two wars and vandalized by some of the Vietnamese people who had not been happy subjects within the kingdom. The country is in the process of rebuilding the entire area, however our tour guide told us that this would take ten to fifteen more years. One interesting note is that the complex is the site of the first tennis court in Vietnam. The last king of Vietnam was educated in Paris — pretty much all of these Asian rulers in former colonies were educated in either England or Paris — and while he was there developed a liking for tennis, hence the building of the tennis court.
After the obligatory, multi-course tour lunch, we were supposed to go see several mausoleum sites of former rulers, then attend a demonstration of the making of incense and conical hats. By now, we had been in the country long enough to know that the demonstrations all end with an exit through the gift shop – no thank you. We caught a cab and left the tour early, hoping that the driver who had been arranged to drive us to Hoi An would be able to pick us up from the hotel a little earlier and we could move on down the road.
And, on to Hoi An…
The driver, it turned out, was available to pick us up at an earlier hour. He was the same driver who had transported us from the airport the night before to our hotel. He greeted us as though we were long lost kin, although he didn’t speak a single word of English.
The trip of 75 miles from Hue to Hoi An takes three hours. Yes, twenty-five miles in an hour. We were over an hour down the road when our driver said something that we later came to realize was something like: “How ‘bout let’s take the scenic route, guys?” This man is a proud son of Vietnam and wanted to show us the beautiful sights in his country. Before we knew it, we had exited the main highway and were off onto roads going up a mountain. We think that the route is possibly part of a national park, although we are not sure. The road wound around mountains with beautiful views of beaches below and waterfalls coming down from the mountains above. Although we appreciated the gesture, John has motion sickness issues and sitting in the back seat of a car zipping around mountain roads is not his idea of a good time. We stopped at the top of the road at a pass where there are tourist shops and cafes. We bought a bottle of water, mostly for the right to use the rest room. We returned to the car and found that the driver had bought a piece of peanut candy the size of a dinner plate that we had seen a woman selling in one of the shops. He offered each of us a piece. It was delicious. We later learned that the peanuts are embedded in a thin sheet of rice paper sweetened with sugar and topped with sesame seeds and then cooked.
We traveled on through Da Nang and eventually made it to Hoi An and our hotel. Tipping is not a big thing in this part of the world, but this man had just driven three hours to deliver us to Hoi An, after which, he would turn right around and drive back. We gave him a tip of 200,000 dong, which sounds like a lot, but it’s about $10. He beamed and hugged us both. I think a lot of his joy was not in the money, but just in seeing that we were happy.
My Son? I don’t think so…
The next morning our schedule called for us to show up at 8:00 a.m. to be taken off on a bus ride up into the countryside to visit My Son (pronounced mee sun), which is the site of very important ruins of former Vietnamese dynasties. As interesting as this sounded, we were not up for it. For the past five days, we had had to pack up every single day and leave our hotel (or our boat) and be somewhere at 8:00 a.m. to be transported around to see stuff. This is NOT the way we travel. We were exhausted and just wanted time off. We sent an email to the tour company to tell them we would not be joining the day’s tour.
We loved the time we spent in Hoi An. On the first morning, we went to the Hoi An Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. There is a fee to enter the area to provide upkeep and to prevent too many people from crowding this small area. The fee is 120,000 dong ($5) each and for another 125,000 dong, we got an English-speaking tour guide to show us the sites. It’s a fascinating place, a mix of areas formerly inhabited by Chinese and Japanese. At the end of the tour, we went to a 30-minute live performance of dancers and musicians performing local music and dance.
We went back to the Old Town in the evening, when it is beautifully lit with colorful lanterns and lantern-festooned boats cruising up and down the river. The Old Town is a quiet area, the only scooter-free place that we’ve experienced in this country, except for Halong Bay. If the Hanoi Old Town is a gritty, New Orleans French Quarter-like place, the Hoi An Old Town feels like walking the streets of a Disney theme park.
We stayed at the Hai Au Boutique Hotel and Spa. When I asked at the desk where the spa was so that I could schedule a massage, I was told that the spa was not part of hotel, but that they do recommend a spa that is a five-minute walk down the street. Off we went to find the Natural Stone spa. We found the place, but it was locked up at 3:00 p.m. on a weekday. What was going on? We were just about to leave when a teenage boy walked out from the adjacent alley. He spoke no English but motioned to us to sit in the outdoor waiting area. While we were waiting, he brought tubs of warm water with lime, lemongrass, and crushed ginger and helped me put my feet in for a soak (John was having no part of this) and bottles of cold water for us to drink. Could this be the massage guy? It was confusing. He unlocked the door to the building and disappeared. Just about that time, two scooters pulled up and two ladies got off, one older, probably in her fifties, the other quite young. “Hello,” the older lady called, pulling off her helmet, “you want massage?” This was Ms. Lam, proprietor of Natural Stone Massage and Ms. Lam’s Laundry, both in the same building. The young woman with her may be her granddaughter – we never learned, but she was my massage lady. I had a one-hour hot stone massage that was wonderful for the unheard-of price of about $13. It was so great, I went back the next day for another, and was greeted by Ms. Lam as though I was her new best friend. While I was being treated, the ever-resourceful Ms. Lam sold John a box of ginger tea for his unsettled stomach.
While we were in Hanoi we had heard that water puppets are a uniquely Vietnamese form of entertainment, not to be missed while in the country. I was happy to see that this is something that is offered in Hoi An. We bought tickets for the last night we were in town. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the water puppets actually are puppet performances that take place in a small pool of water instead of on a stage. The puppeteers, like all puppeteers, are behind a screen, but these are standing in waist-deep water as they manipulate the puppets. The performance was only 45 minutes long and was made up of about a dozen short performances depicting elements of Vietnamese life and folklore. The program closed with the puppeteers coming out for a bow and, curiously, singing “Auld Lang Syne.”