Friday, December 4, 2009

Central Vietnam

Today is 4-12-2009, we have left Central Vietnam in the early morning by Jet Star from Hue. It is raining, which is normal for Hue as it is in the wet season. We arrived at Saigon or HCMC(Ho Chih Minh City)airport in the afternoon.

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We were in Danang, Hoi-an and Hue for the last few days. Danang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam. We arrived at the Danang airport late as the plane from Jet Star was delayed. But we managed to see the lantern festival at Hoi-an.

30-12-2009, Hoi-an(會安市), Vietnam
Full Moon Festival at Hoi-an

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Hoi-an is a small city at the coast of South China Sea, in the south central coast of Vietnam. It is located in Quảng Nam province, with population of about 120,000 people. In 1999, the old town of Hoi-an was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO as 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. It is called Faifo in the 17th century. The heart of the city is still the Old Town, full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shophouses, which is particularly atmospheric in the evening as the sun goes down. While almost all shops now cater to the tourist trade, the area has been largely preserved as is, which is unusual in Vietnam.

Hoi-an is pedestrian friendly, cars are prohibited to enter the old town. But unfortunately they did not ban motorbikes from entering the old town, except the 14th and 15th of lunar calendar. We purposely planned to arrived on the 14th day of lunar calendar on 30th Nov 2009, just to be in time for the night for the celebrate of Full Moon Festival. A pick up van from the hotel in Danang, took us all the way from the airport to Hoi-an, despite the flight delay we managed to arrive in time. We stopped at a local Vietnamese restaurant for the dinner, prior to our walk at HOn the night, a lot of activities, including traditional games such as bai choi, trong quan, and dap nieu are held in all over the town. There were festival like atmosphere. The local hang red color paper lanterns on the 14th of each month of lunar calendar, they also put small candle floats on the river, and the locals and tourists either enjoyed their night on the boat, or at the food outlets at the river side, the river side will be crowded with people and filled with cultural activities. Over the bridge, there are stalls selling colorful paper lanterns with various shapes, Hoi An is the capitqal of hanging paper lanterns. It was a beautiful night difficult to forget.

We have good sleep at the Hotel in Danang after a beautiful night.

1-12-2009, Danang /Da Nang(岘港市), Vietnam
One day tour of Danang City

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Danang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, it is a port city located on the coast of South China Sea. It is a busy port city where tourism is still under developing. During the Vietnam War, the city was home to a major air base that was used by both the South Vietnamese and United States air forces.

Danang is the largest city in central Vietnam and one of the country's most important ports. Ringed by mountains on one side and the East Sea on the other, Danang has numerous sites of natural beauty and historical interest.

The city’s origins date back to the ancient Champa Kingdom, established by Indonesian settlers in 192AD. At its peak, the Cham’s sphere of influence stretched from Hue to Vung Tau. The expansion of the Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer led to the decline and fall of the Cham by the mid-15th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, French and Spanish traders and missionaries made landfall at Hội An, just south of Danang. By the 19th century, Danang had superseded Hội An as the most important seaport in the central region. The presence of the French in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Americans in the 1960s, led to continued growth of Danang, and it is now Vietnam's fourth largest city.

Currently most tourists skip Danang, but it is worth a visit. We stay in Danang longer, due to some private reason, with bad memory of being cheated by a tour agent who pretend to be the boss of the agency and earn some fee from us. He also took us to a seafood restaurant which charged excessive price compared to the locals(may have earned some commission out of it). Today, we have city tour of Danang, Table Mountain, China Beach, Cham Museum, and Ba Na Hill.

Table Mountain (Ngu Hanh Son), 9km south of Da Nang. T;is a lime stone hill with temple and caves, there is nothing much to see at the hill, except when you climb up the hill top; you can see the view of Danang and the South China Sea and beaches. At the foot of the hill are marble workshop and shop, very dusty. You need to pay entrance fee of 15,000 dong , and if you want to enter a cave where a monkey god is on guard, you need to pay another fee. If you are short of time, you can skip it.

China Beach is classified as one of top 10th elite beach in the world 2009 by online magazine; ‘World’s Most Luxurious Beaches’2005 by Forbes magazine, Asian top 5th beach 2007 by Australian survey. China Beach first rose to fame when its close proximity to Da Nang led to it being used as an R&R destination for American soldiers. The China Beach is make famous by American dramatic television series with the title named after the beach, the TV series was set at an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War. The title refers to a beach in the city of Da Nang, Vietnam, that was nicknamed China Beach by unknown foreigners. The ABC TV drama aired for three years, from 1988 to 1991. The specific section of the China Beach of Vietnam War and television series fame is known locally as Bai Tam My Khe.China Beach is a 30km long sandy surfing paradise that extends out south from Danang. The water is usually warm enough to have a bath in all year round, and the gusty typhoon season between November and March can often bring great swells up and down the length of the beach. The area is mostly visited by backpacking Europeans, Americans and Australians. If you are beach lover and do not like the over crowded tourist belt of Nha Trang, this is the place for you. Other than that there is nothing there, you can skip it if you are rushing to Hue and no time to spare. The China Beach beachfront, stretching from the Son Tra peninsula to the north, down to Cua Dai Beach outside Hoi An to the south, was preparing for a massive transformation,much development is undergoing there. A new casino is to be opened next year. This beach is going to be famous in future.

Thousands of acres of beachfront property have been appropriated by the government for use by international hotel conglomerates to build four and five-star luxury resorts, and major chains like Raffles and Hyatt have already erected billboards.

Cham museum(Bao Tang Cham) is a must,if you have visit My Son or going to visit My Son, as it will enrich your knowledge of Cham culture. It is located at the side of Han River, near the intersection of Tran Phu and Le Dinh Duong roads, South Danang. The museum is open daily from 8.00 to 11.00 AM, and 1.00 to 5.00 PM.. It was established in 1915 by the École Française d'Extrême Orient, formerly known as Musée Henri Parmentier, to preserve the finds of ancient Champa kingdom. The museum is housed in a classical French colonial building, and has the finest collection of Cham sculpture in the world, from various part of central and south Vietnam(more specifically the area stretching from Quang Binh to Binh Thuan). But the bulk of it is from My Son site. My Son is the former ancient capital & religion center of Cham Empire, is located in a remote forested valley some 70 km west of Danang, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Our focus in Danang, is actually Ba Na Hills. A mountain discovered in 1901 by French Capt Debay and his three lieutenants. The governor Doumer then decided to build a hill station for his French civil employees and military officers. The area was developed into a resort after WW1. It is 25 km from Danang town at an altitude of 1487 meters. It is well known as the second Da Lat or Sa Pa in central Vietnam. Its temperate climate, unspoiled forest, and spectacular views over the South China Sea and the Lao mountain range made Ba Na a popular retreat. When we reached the foot of the hill, the cable car was stopped for service, due to routine repair and maintenance service. No one inform us when we book the private car there. It only need 15 minutes to reach the top of Mount Chua by a new cable system that was officially opened on 25th March 2009. The cable car have 2 Guinness world records, the longest non-stop cable cars and the highest non-stop cable car. We are sorry we are not able to visit the mountain.

2-12-2009, Hue(順化市), Vietnam
Trip to Hue from Danang

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We start our journey to Hue from Danang, the journey from Danang to Hue is beautiful, with the villages, beaches, fishing villages, paddy field and cemetery on the way. Yes, cemetery at the paddy field. Rural Vietnamese buried their dead relatives not at centralized cemetery, but at their own individual land, near to their house. Recently there is a man who lived with his dead wife at her tomb stones for sometime, until the children stopped him. But he took the skeleton of his wife out from the tomb and dressed it up and sleep with the clothed skeleton each night. There is another story of an oversea daughter, who have contributed much to build the village house, but passed away oversea. Her last will was to bury inside the house, the family fulfilled her wish by buried her inside the house. That is why the Vietnamese tombs are unique as they indicated the love of the living to stay close to their love ones who have passed away. They always built the tomb in specially design and colorful painted tombs.

We also visited Lang Co Beach, which lies on the most beautiful curve of the country where you will be the first to see sunrise in Vietnam. It is located Lăng Cô, very small and peaceful town, its name is probably derived from “Làng Cò” (literally means Stork Village) or L 'An Cu as the French pronounced its original name An Cư (Settle down). Lang Co beach has been voted as one of the top 30 beautiful beaches in the world. It can be reached from Da Nang through Hai Van Tunnel or take the Hai Van Pass to enjoy the beautiful view, before you arrive at Lang Co. The sea waves was very strong at the beach, when we visited the beach. But it may not be good time for any activities, as the wind is very strong.

When we reached Hue it was raining. Hue is located in central Vietnam , just a few miles inland from the Biển Đông, about 700 km (438 miles) south of the national capital of Hanoi and about 1100 km (690 miles) north of Hồ Chí Minh City/Saigon. Hue is located on the banks of the Sông Hương or Huong Giang(Hương River,香江),in English it is called Perfume River. In the autumn, flowers from orchards upriver from Huế fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma, and the name Song Huong or Perfume River. Huế is best known for its historic monuments, which have earned it a place in the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Hue was the imperial capital of the Tây Sơn Dynasty & Nguyễn Dynasty(西山朝和阮朝), between 1802-1945.

Huế originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords of Tây Sơn Dynasty, a feudal dynasty which dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. In 1775 when Trinh Sam captured it, it was known as Phú Xuân(富春). In 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (later Emperor Gia Long) succeeded in establishing his control over the whole of Vietnam, thereby making Huế the national capital. Huế was the national capital until 1945, when Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated and a Communist government was established in Hà Nội (Hanoi), in the north.

In the Tết Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Hue, the city suffered considerable damage not only to its physical features, but its reputation as well, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings as well as the now infamous massacre at Huế committed by the Communist forces. After the war's conclusion, many of the historic features of Huế were neglected, being seen by the victorious regime and some other Vietnamese as "relics from the feudal regime"; the Vietnamese Communist Party doctrine officially describes the Nguyen Dynasty as "feudal" and "reactionary", but there has since been a change of policy, and some parts of the historic city have been restored.

The Massacre at Huế (Thảm sát tại Huế Tết Mậu Thân) is the name given to describe the summary executions and mass killings conducted by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam during their four-week "capture, occupation and later withdrawal" from the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive, considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

The seat of the Nguyen emperors was in the Citadel(Forbidden Purple City), which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the concubines, emperors, and those close enough to them were granted access, the punishment for trespassing being death. Today, little of the forbidden city remains, though reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a tourist attraction as a view of the history of Huế. Along the Perfume River from Huế lie other monuments, including the tombs of several emperors such as Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, Tu Duc, and others. Also notable is the Thien Mu Pagoda, located not far from the city centre along the river, the largest pagoda in Huế and chosen as the official symbol of the city

We checked into a 3 star hotel, Ngoc Huong Hotel, at 8-10, Chu Van An Street, Hue city. The hotel was introduced by the tour agent in Danang. Its room rate range from US$30 to US$40 per night. Near Perfume River. The breakfast is provided, and the restaurant has a beautiful view of Perfume River and the city.

Today we only managed to visit Thien Mu Pagoda at the river bank of Perfume River. Thien Mu Pagoda, 4km from the Hue city. The Thien Mu Pagoda overlooks the Perfume River and is the official symbol of the city of Hue. Thien Mu means "elderly celestial woman", and refers to an old legend about the founding of the pagoda. From the site, the view of the Perfume River is beautiful, opportunities for great photos.

After the visit, the rain become heavy and the time is too late for us to visit the Citadel. We changed our plan, for shopping at the Cho Dong Ba or Dong Ba Market.Dong Ba market is considered as a paradise for snapshots of daily activities as well as for shopping with everything from souvenir items to bronze goods, Hue sesame sweetmeat, conical poem hats, local foods, lanterns, T shirts etc.We shop until the time the shops give the signal that they are closing. The biggest market in Hue, it is crowded with locals and tourists each days.

3-12-2009,Hue, Vietnam
Imperial City, Citadel & Imperial Tomb

Still at Hue. We visited Citadel or Dai Noi early in the morning. It was raining heavily, we have to buy rain coat and umbrella to tour the imperial city. The citadel was badly damaged during the fighting between the French and the Viet Minh in 1947, and again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, when it was shelled by the Viet Cong and then bombed by the Americans. Some areas are now only empty fields, bits of walls, and an explanatory plaque. Some buildings are still intact but need repair, however a few are still in sparkling condition. The restoration has been going on for 20 years, with the help of a Polish architect(who has passed away), it is still quite a long way to regain its past glory. Even the heritage site is still under reconstruction, it is still retain the beauty and charm of its past history. While we visited the imperial city, there was a group of VIP Polish visitors visited the place. It was worth all the effort to visit the Citadel under the rain.

The royal mausoleums of Hue are mightily impressive and are among one of the top "must-sees" for tourists in Vietnam. Many can be easily visited in a day on one of the many tourist “dragon boats” that ply the river. Alternatively, you could always hire a motorbike or bicycle and explore the tombs on land at leisure, sandwiched between peaceful hamlets, rice fields and sugar cane plantation. Since the early 1900's until as recently as 1945, the city of Hue temporarily took over from Hanoi as capital of Vietnam and the Nguyen dynasty of Emperors lived, ruled and subsequently were buried here. With this legacy, Hue now has eight relatively intact royal tombs scattered along the Perfume River valley and the surrounding low-lying hills. Once hidden for years by vows of sworn secrecy, they are now open to the public. After our lunch, we selected the largest of the royal tombs - Tu Duc. The weather is now fine and cool, rain have stopped. Even at their death, the emperors were buried at a garden like sites, which was built before their death, according to the personality of each emperors. Again, the place looked old and suffered from wear and tear.

After that, it is shopping again at Dong Ba Market after the visit to Tu Duc. While the ladies are having their time in the market, two of us walk to a busy street just opposite the market. It is a busy street with shops mainly deal with electrical goods; a left turn to a road crossed a bridge that lead to an old walled gate, we now are inside the local Vietnamese community without any sight of foreign visitors. It is another sight you will not able to find in your tour. One of us have a ear clearing service, Vietnam style. He said the barber is very professional and better than the service offered by barber in our home country.

4-12-2009 Hue, Vietnam
From Hue to HCMC(Saigon)

It is time to leave Hue for HCMC(Ho Chi Minh City) or Saigon. Hue is such a beautiful city with the Perfume River, but we have limited time to really get to know her better. Hope to visit her again in near future. If you have no sufficient time, Hue can be visited within one day tour.

Before the departure, wife suddenly discovered the pair of shoes she bought have different sizes. She insist on changing it in the morning. There is not much time left for our air departure. My brother in law suggested that she should throw it away. At last the lady win. The van parked near the Dong Ba Market, the market is still closed. I wonder how the ladies get their shoes changed. The market stall was surround with fence enclosure and the owner is not there yet. The security guide caught the two ladies trying their best to change the shoes, but at last was convinced by the ladies to help them to change the shoes. Finally with the help of the neighboring stall owner, they managed to get the shoes changed. What a helpful Vietnamese wife must be very thankful to them......

We will take a domestic flight from Hue to HCMC by Jet Star. The plan to visit Nha Trang, and Dalat was canceled due to some reasons. Still not sure about visiting Mui we will be in HCMC for 3 days until 7-12-2009.

Hue to HCMC is 1100 km(690 miles), you can travel by car but highly recommended not to do so, due to high accident rate in Vietnam. If you insist of using private car, it is advised to hire car with local driver. Most travelers used overnight train, or by air. Vietnam Airline and Jet Star provided air route from Hue to HCMC. We took Jet Star, which is US$48 to US$52, but it is advised to book earlier to obtain cheaper pricing. Avoid buying from agency, book online instead as tour agency charged higher. If you are worried about luggage overweight, select 20 kg option to avoid higher charges at the airport. The travel by air for the long distance travel from Hue to HCMC is comfortable. Budget travelers normally used overnight open tour bus.

Another option is to travel to Nha Trang, stop a while at the seaside resort; and continue later to Mui Ne(220 km from HCMC), and then go straight to HCMC. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are seaside city/town. If you want to avoid beaches, another option is Nha Trang then straight to Dalat, a small mountain town, 308 km away from HCMC.

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