Monday, 8 April 2013

... Indochina: Ooh, Suit You Sir!

On the northern bank of the Perfume river is the former imperial city of Hué. It was the home of 13 Nguyen Emperors from 1804 -1945. There is so much to learn about this place that you really need a guide to explain it.

This is what I learnt from mine: It began construction in 1804 and despite being heavily bombed by, depending on who you believe, either the Viet Cong or the Americans it's size will astound you. It was almost completely destroyed and parts of it have been restored from original plans and photos that the Royal family still had. It is rather beautifully built with that sense of history that just won't let go right down to the bullet holes still visible from the Vietnam War. There are lots of temples and different areas to visit. More and more buildings are being reconstructed and whilst not at its former glory it is a worthwhile visit to see.

And well how cool is a fort with its very own moat? Admit it, you want your house to have its very own moat!

Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson (yes I watch "cool" TV shows) described Hai Van Pass in the "Vietnam Special" episode back in 2008 as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world.” Yet the Hai Van Pass is so much more than that. It is an obvious boundary – both historically and in the physical sense - as it looms above the coastal road, practically cutting it in two.

It used to be the main route from Da Nang to Hue before the completion of the Hai Van Tunnel in 2005 (the longest tunnel in South-East Asia). Since most traffic now flows through the tunnel, the road itself is almost completely deserted save for tourist buses and a few locals. Probably a good thing if, like today, it is clouded in mist. Its name translates into Ocean Cloud Pass.

The road snakes along the hillside for about 21km, weaving back and forth through a series of hairpin bends, steep inclines and, from what little I could see, breathtaking scenery until you reach its famous summit. How my driver could see his way through the thick cloud of mist I have absolutely no idea. The fortifications here date back to the Dai Viet Kingdom and also include more recent French and American additions although I could've been squinting at anything really, I could barely see past my nose.

It’s also the climatic boundary between North and South Vietnam, protecting Da Nang and Hoi An from the chilly ‘Chinese winds’ from the North-West. I definitely noticed a considerable change in the weather between Hué and Hoi An. Yes, thankfully my driver's careful driving (by Vietnamese standards) got me safely through the fog and into Da Nang before arriving in Hoi An. This was even though he took "racing driver corners".

Hoi An translates as peaceful meeting place and it is not hard to see why. I have to admit after Hanoi, Halong Bay and even Hué to a certain extent, Hoi An has put Vietnam back in my good books. I have arrived here and found myself thinking "yes, now I feel like I am in Vietnam". It is said that, when describing the Country in terms of personality, North Vietnam parties for a day and works the rest of the year whilst South Vietnam works for a day and parties the rest of the year. If my sources are correct Vietnam will only continue to get better from here on in. Granted Hoi An is a bit touristy. However it has this charm and appeal that is simply infectious. I had barely explored and I was already in love with this UNESCO town.

 It is apparently a "well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th Centuries with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences." In simple English? It's an awesome place to be. Imagine quaint little streets with yellow painted buildings converted into trendy restaurants, wine bars and an "Holy crap" amount of tailor shops and this is Hoi An. Sound like a nightmare? I can assure you it isn't. You get drawn in, nay sucked in, by the ambience and it's truly wonderful. I spent time helping someone pick out cloth for a bunch of tailor made shirts and I don't even know this person!?! There were so many tailor shops I lost count and yet all of them appear busy. You need a new suit? Done. Want a remake of that designer dress worn by so n' so at this years Academy Awards? Done. You name it. You got it. Wedding dress? Done. You could probably even get something made for your funeral if you were that way inclined. Whatever you want you could very likely have done and of course tailored. Watching these women go to work was simply amazing. They know what they are doing! Even if they a tad non-politically persuade someone against something by telling them "you will look fat". And well if the billboard of Daniel Craig is anything to go by then it surely means it is going to look amazing, right?

If having something tailor-made doesn't suit you (sorry, I couldn't resist) then there are a bunch of historical buildings for you to peruse. There's an admission fee but you can buy this one ticket that allows you entrance to 5 sites and that fee goes towards funding the town's preservation. Win-win really. There's also a couple of pagodas, the Japanese Covered Bridge and a bunch of museums.

More shopping comes in the form of art galleries, handmade shoes, lanterns and jewelry. There's no pressure to buy (or at least little pressure) and most of what I saw had been made locally. Reaching Out is a fair-trade gift shop with an interesting story. It is a sustainable program aimed at encouraging local skills by local disabled people. That is to say that all the products sold here have been made by them. It's a great initiative to help locals who may have a physical or mental disability help themselves by providing them with a job that pays. The quality of the merchandise is amazing and it's great to head to the workshop at the back to read about the workers. If you're looking for  something truly nice to take home, this is a place to shop. Make sure you try the Reaching Out tea house as well. What a fantastic find!

My real personal find of the day was Blue Coral Diving. Yep, it's time to get these itchy feet wet and get my dive on in Vietnam. Whilst the diving is not perhaps as world class as some other places around Asia I had heard good things about the macro life here particularly off the Cham Islands. I was also impressed with my recent online dealings with Steve, the ex-pat diving instructor from Southport who owns the diving store, when I had begun looking into the possibility of going diving. To be honest I could spend my entire time underwater looking at sand and I would still be happy - it's all about that feeling of becoming an aquanaut and igniting your senses with the world of the deep blue. The shop had a great vibe, the staff were cool to chat with and 1,500000 VND later I was booked to do two dives with all equipment included, pick up/drop off, beverages & fruit on the boat and a BBQ seafood lunch on one of the Island's beaches! For those of you still struggling to wrap your head around the Vietnamese Dong, and I still haven't got it after almost a week, that's about $75CDN. Insanely amazing deal! I can't wait.


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