Vietnam Diaries Part 2: Nha Trang, Hoi An & Hue

All photos by the author.

Our time in Ho Chi Minh City drew to a close, and so we packed our bags and headed for the airport ready to trade city life for white sand beaches.  The coastal resort of Nha Trang – the Riviera of the South China Sea, supposedly – appeared much like towns of the same class do, you could have told me I was on the Costa del Sol and I would have believed you. The only difference was that the glitzy high rises and stark white promenades faced out onto a bay littered with tropical islands.

Until now, my trip had been a true tourist escapade with culture and exploring in abundance. Now, it was time for a little hedonistic pleasure. Our first night in Nha Trang saw the group dolled up ready to have cocktails and dinner right on the beach at The Sailing Club. As we finished our delicious meal and dirt-cheap cocktails, a parade of fire dancers came out to entertain us with hair-singeing tricks and a challenging round of limbo. The food was promptly cleared, and the music started. Our night finished with dancing and a night time dip in the sea.

The next day, only slightly marred by our late night, we swapped beach-side bars for a boat tour around the bay with Funky Monkey Tours. Not only did we get to see the islands that surrounded Nha Trang but we were also treated to a full bill of entertainment by the wonderful crew. Our seats collapsed into a table which was laden with a delicious feast that appeared completely out of nowhere. A makeshift drum kit and a guitar were then conjured out of nowhere to serenade us and start a round of international karaoke (one song for each nationality). The Brits had to sing Wonderwall, and you bet we sang it well.

Once we had snorkeled along the rocky shores of one little island, the boat pulled out and set up a floating bar so we could enjoy cups of an interesting orange liqueur as we floated in the South China Sea. This was very pleasant, were it not for the baking sun. We all got quite sunburnt that day. When we weren’t floating on the waves, we were diving off the top deck of the boat and enjoying some stunning views of the Vietnamese coast. It was pure summer fun and the perfect interlude to our busy trip.

The next day saw another trip to the airport for a quick hop up North. We’d had the city life and the seaside vibes, it was now time for a little picturesque tranquillity. Our stunning hotel in Hoi An stood right across from the bridge into the old quarter of the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site defined by its blushed yellow buildings, an abundance of hanging lanterns and a stunning Japanese-style bridge. The best way to see this beautiful city is by bike, and so we did. Cruising around the cozy side streets in the afternoon sun was easily one of the most pleasant afternoons I have ever spent.

After exploring the towns many markets and temples, our final stop was Yaly Couture, a bespoke tailor and one of the best in town. (Fun fact: they were the tailors that dressed Clarkson and co on the Vietnam Special of Top Gear). Relaxing in the cool and spacious shop, we placed our orders and had our measurements taken ready for our fittings the same afternoon. I ordered a dress, blazer and jumpsuit for a fraction of the cost of an off-the-shelf item of the same quality, let alone a tailored piece!

As night fell, so the true beauty of Hoi An came to life. The old quarter and its canals were illuminated by thousands of paper lanterns strung across the street and floating on the water. The effect was like something out of a fairy-tale, a magical display that only enhanced the chocolate-box beauty of the city.

No trip to a new country is really complete without a cooking class, and our choice was Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School right on the banks of the canal. We made delicious crispy pancakes and rice paper rolls, and only two people set things on fire. The restaurant overlooked the bustling night market that cut right through the city and was the perfect setting to walk off the many courses of food we’d eaten.

The following day, we left Hoi An and drove into the mountains to visit the exquisite Marble Mountains, a cluster of marble and limestone hills just outside Da Nang famed for their stunning views, extensive caves and Buddhist sanctuaries. There is, thankfully, an elevator to take you to the top. This maze of caves is filled with statues and shrines fitted with dazzling neon lights, filling the eerie gloom with colour. Once you climb into the light you find yourself in the midst of a beautiful, pale and ornamented Buddhist temple which overlooks the vast Vietnamese countryside. The feel of the place is serene and contemplative, a magical place that feels quite unlike the world outside.

Saying goodbye to a stunning few days in Hoi An, we began the short drive up the coast to the ancient capital of Hue. The journey was as good as the destination, the route had stunning views of the mountains and bays that clung to the coast, and the winding road was an experience in itself. We could have made it quicker if it weren’t for the many necessary stops for quick photo opportunities

Once the seat of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Emperors, the city of Hue saw a stark mix of old and new. The best way to experience this city? By bike, of course. This time, however, we left the work to someone else and cruised through the gates of the Imperial City whilst reclining in comfortable rickshaws.

The bustling new town is dominated at its centre by the imposing walls of the Imperial City, which clings to the banks of the Perfume River. The compound is excessively huge, with a vast parade ground capable of dwarfing an army. A walk through the purple gates brings you to the ancient palace, now much in ruin, but still bursting with history. One of the more peaceful tourist spots we visited, an hour can easily be killed exploring the ornate walkways.

Our next stop, The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, stood a short way down the Perfume River, a stunning and historic Buddhist temple that is the unofficial symbol of Hue to many. The temple’s beautiful gardens – the highlight of which is easily their many bonsai trees – are home to many monks who go about their daily business as if the tourists and worshippers aren’t there. This temple has special significance as the home of Thich Quang Duc – the monk who set himself on fire to protest the treatment of Vietnamese Buddhists – and the car he rode to Saigon before his final act stands in the grounds as a testament to him. A reflective place, and a touching insight into the daily lives of Buddhist worshippers in Vietnam.

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