The first inkling that we were going to like Vietnam came when a Vietnamese sleeper bus picked us up on the side of a dusty road in Laos to transport us the 20 hours to Hoi An. We stepped onto the practically empty bus to see seats that were reminiscent of an actual bed. We could recline almost fully which made the ride relatively comfortable!
We fell in love with Hoi An, Vietnam almost immediately. The city is picturesque and the food….oh my…..the food is so delicious! At night, silk lanterns line the streets and dot the trees. It’s pleasant to casually stroll along the river in old town. The area prohibits cars and motorbikes adding to the romance and charm of the place.
In the late 16th century, Hoi An became the one of the most important trading ports on the South China Sea and by the 18th century in all of Southeast Asia. It was here that Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian merchants came to trade goods – ceramics in particular. This eclectic mix of cultures is reflected today in Hoi An’s colorful architecture. The incredibly preserved wooden structures and street plan in old town Hoi An are original and date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, which is unique for the area. Because it is such a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port, old town Hoi An was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.
Classic one-way conversation happening in the video above 🙂
Back to the topic of food…Hoi An is famous for a couple of local delicacies including White Rose and Cau Lau. White Roses are a type of shrimp dumpling made from translucent white dough bunched up to look like a rose and topped with crunchy bits of toasty garlic. Authentic Cau Lau, a dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens uses only water from a special well in the city.
Our favorite food, however, came from a small cart run by Madam Khanh, the self- proclaimed Banh Mi Queen. She makes one dish, a banh mi sandwich. We have eaten bahn mi numerous times before in Portland, but this sandwich was the best we had ever eaten. I have no idea what she puts on it (nor do I want to know), but it is simply incredible. We ate there four days in a row.
Hoi An is a bustling city situated along the Thu Bon River, but just outside the city limits lies six kilometers of palm tree lined rice fields and shrimp ponds that lead to white, sandy beaches along the South China Sea. We rented bikes and purposefully got lost in the countryside.
Our plan for our three weeks in Vietnam was to start in Hoi An and travel north towards Hanoi with stops along the way. Our next destination was Hue, which was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 until 1945 when the Emperor abdicated the throne and a communist government was established in Hanoi.
We rented a motorbike to visit several of the Imperial Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty, located outside the city. Our first stop was to the tomb of Tu Duc constructed in 1864-1867. This tomb complex is vast, containing sprawling wooden pavilions, tombs and temples set around a lake. This complex also served as a second Imperial City during his reign.
The most elaborate and grand tomb was that of Khai Dinh built between 1920-1931. His multi-level tomb complex is built into the side of Chau Chu Mountain. His tomb and the surrounding walls are covered in intricately designed glass and porcelain mosaics.
The most remote tomb is that of Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. The only access to this tomb is by a narrow, floating bridge across a river, making it impossible for cars and tour buses to reach it. This meant that we were able to wander around the tomb complex completely without another soul in sight 🙂 Although this tomb isn’t as well maintained as others, we enjoyed the peaceful and serene surroundings.
For our second and last day in Hue, we visited the Imperial City, a walled fortress and palace in use by the Nguyen Dynasty from the early 1800’s until the mid-1900s. The City is a sprawling 5 square kilometer complex of temples, pavilions, moats, gardens, and ornate gates. Sadly, the majority of the 160 buildings (only 10 remain) that once stood here were destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968 during the American (Vietnam) War.
Next stop: one of the largest cave systems in the world in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park!