Vietnam Stories and Tips

4. Crossing an Inexistent Border: Central Vietnam

River Photo, Hoi An, Vietnam

Dalat

High in the Southern Central Highlands, Da Lat is Vietnam’s main mountain resort; it attracts huge numbers of honeymooners and tourists. The main sights are Emperor Bao Dai's Summer Palace, the French Quarter, the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, and the Valley of Love, which is 5km north of the city and aimed to the newly wed.

Five kilometers south of Da Lat, halfway down the dramatic Pren Pass, is the Lake Tuyen Lam (daily 7:30am-4:30pm), boats can be rented on the north shore; on the summit behind is a meditation pagoda. A few hundred meters on are the Datanla Falls (6am-6pm; 5000d).

Nearby are several Hill Tribes. Some can be reached independently with motorbike taxis. The Chicken Village (Lang Con Ga) is one of those; unfortunately, it resembles more a huge handicrafts shop than anything else.

Most hotels in Da Lat lie around the cinema and along Phan Dinh Phung. A recommended place is Hoa Binh I, at 64 Truong Cong Dinh; it offers good rooms with hot water, starting at five dollars for a single.

Sophisticated cafes rule Da Lat and serve interesting adaptations of French dishes and specialty ones from the Vietnamese cuisine. Excellent rice dishes cooked in a clay pot can be found at Huong Tra (1 Nguyen Thai Hoc) by the lakeside; the rabbit one is outstanding.

Poklongarai Towers

It is worth to leave Da Lat in the morning; night-buses save time but skip the Poklongarai Towers, a structure from the Cham Kingdom dating back to Angkor days. The similitude between the two styles is great; both use fake arches, though the angular shapes of Angkor are replaced here with soft rounded shapes and the black stones by pink ones.

The Sixth Week

Nha Trang

A blue sea, a wide, sandy beach and daiquiris welcome the visitors to this pastel version of Eden.

The six-kilometers long municipal beach is the main attraction. Next to it are a beautiful promenade and a spacious avenue that creates a luxurious feeling of space. This is the best place to dive in Vietnam; the main operators are Octopus Diving Club, 62 Tran Phu and Rainbow Divers, 52 Tran Phu.

Long Son Pagoda in the town’s northwest hosts a huge White Buddha; it symbolizes the Buddhist struggle against the repressive Diem regime. Around its base are carved images of the monks and nuns that set fire to themselves in protest.

The Po Nagar Cham Towers are north of the town, just after the bridge. They were built between the 7th and 12th centuries on a site that had been used earlier for Hindu worship. The largest and most impressive is the 23-metre-high northern one, built in 817 and dedicated to Yang Ino Po Nagar, Goddess Mother of the Kingdom and a manifestation of Uma, Shiva's consort.

The Pasteur Institute at the north end of Tran Phu houses the Alexandre Yersin Museum (Mon-Sat 8-11am & 2-4:30pm; around two dollars), a Swiss-French scientist who discovered here the plague bacillus.

Day-trips to the nearby islands cost around seven dollars per person. The closest island to the Cau Da Wharf is Hon Mieu; it is served by a local ferry departing from there (one dollar), and docking at the Tri Nguyen fishing village.

Excellent seafood is available everywhere. The most remarkable establishment is the Louisiana Café, opposite the airport on southern Tran Phu; it has a private stretch of beach so that hawkers cannot approach the clients, an inner swimming pool and a French colonial style. Its high prices, offer the rarest commodity in Vietnam: quiet.

Hoi An

Hoi An is the next location to the north worth a stop, reaching it with a night bus is the suggested option. The town is unique within Vietnam; it is crowded with astounding, intact structures belonging to various cultures and different centuries.

The Tourist Office (12 Phan Chu Trinh) sells a combined ticket ($3.30) covering Hoi An's more famous sights and allowing access to five sights to choose from a list of temples, handicrafts’ shops, Chinese Assembly Halls, merchant's houses, family's chapels and museums.

The town is an open museum; there are more than 850 structures declared as historical. The different Chinese communities living here have each a colourful Assembly Hall. Wooden merchants’ houses and family chapels are worth a detailed visit; it is recommended to dedicate a whole day to such a tour.

The Japanese Covered Bridge is the best-known structure in the city; it has been constructed by the Japanese merchants living in Hoi An at the mid-sixteenth century. Due to its fragile structure, it has been faithfully reconstructed to its original shape several times. It is located at the western end of Tran Phu. Inside the narrow bridge are a collection of stelae and four statues, of two dogs and two monkeys, signalling the work began in the year of the monkey and ended in that of the dog.

The city is famous all for its tailors; most of them are placed around the market. They show the customers Western fashion magazines from where they can choose a design. After the cloth and the shape are chosen, the price is set and the garment is prepared in a few hours.

The Bo Bo Restaurant is located at the very town’s center. It serves classical Vietnamese dishes with care and love. A lunch costs less than five dollars, while the dishes are priceless. The place offers comfortable seats by the street and in a colonially decorated interior as well. The main attractions are Cao Lau (rice noodles, bean sprouts & pork) and Banh Bao (white rose steamed manioc flour with diced crab).

Hue

Hue is one of Vietnam's main cultural and religious centers. In 1802, Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen dynasty, moved the capital from Hanoi and built his Imperial City in Hue. They ruled from Hue until the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai in 1945.

The Imperial City, or Forbidden Purple City, is still one of the biggest attractions of the town. However, the first time I visited it, the entrance fee was 55000D for foreigners and 5000D for "Locals and Asians;" being a UNESCO sponsored site through the World's Heritage Site system, I complained to that organization about the discrimination. In my second visit the situation was slightly better, 55000D for foreigners and 15000D for "Locals and Asians."

Sampan trips up the Perfume River are enjoyable and include visits to some of Hue's main attractions. They reach the Thien Mu Pagoda, the Hon Chen Temple and the Royal Mausoleums; it is possible to take a bicycle on the boat and cycle back to Hue. The river tours start at two dollars per person (not including the entrance fees).

Thien Mu Pagoda is within cycling distance of Hue (6km; 30min); follow south Highway 1 till the train tracks and then turn west along the river. Hon Chen Temple is nine kilometers from Hue and is only accessible from the river; to skip the tours, it is possible to hire a sampan from the ferry station opposite the temple for 5000D.

Another way to enjoy the Perfume River is to assist a traditional folksong performance on its waters; tourist offices and hotels can sell you tickets for nightly performances on the river, starting from three dollars.

The main backpackers' area is around Hung Vuong and Nguyen Tri Phuong. There, is the comfortable Binh Minh I (aka Sunrise, 12 Nguyen Tri Phuong); this popular hotel offers clean, homely rooms, and free tea and coffee; singles start at five dollars.

The Quan Hanh-Bistro at 2 Nguyen Tri Phuong offers the most famous local dish: banh khoai, a small, crispy yellow pancake, fried up with shrimps, pork and bean sprouts, it is served with a sauce of peanuts and sesame, star fruit, green banana, lettuce and mint leaves.

The Mandarin Café at 12 Hung Vuong has a cheap, filling and tasty menu of Vietnamese and Western dishes as well as a Sinh Café's booking desk.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Hue is a good base for a tour of the DMZ. It is recommended to take the long tour along roads 1 and 9, which passes through the Vinh Moc Caves, which are by the sea, next to the old border between North and South Vietnam. They are bigger than those in Cu Chi and give a real sense of a community living underground during a harsh period. The tours continue to the Rockpile and to the Khe Shan airbase. Make sure the bus stops at Hai Van Pass, the overwhelming geographical limit between the southern and northern parts of the country.

Hanoi is the next stop to the north and is well worth planning at least a week there, since the exciting city and its surroundings have much to offer. The way connecting between the cities is long and not very interesting, thus, it is better to arrive there with the night bus.

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