World traveler Clown Tom Bolton

Adventure stories & photos


Cental Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam – former imperial capital

This is a continuation of my trip to Vietnam in early 2014. The first part is covered on the Northern Vietnam page. From Hanoi I had a flight to Hue on what was officially the first day of the new lunar year. I got the Vietnam Air airport shuttle which only cost 3 dollars instead of a 18 dollar taxi. It worked out fine although I had to walk 15 minutes with my backpack at 5.30 in the morning and missed the breakfast that was included in my hotel rate. It was somewhere from 60 to 90 minutes flight time but of course getting to the airport in time and getting the baggage took time as well.

Upon arrival in Hue, I went out the door and found that the bus service that should be running was not and suddenly all of the other tourists I might have been able to share a taxi with were full up and disappeared. There might have been some stragglers back inside but I just went ahead and paid the 7 dollars or so to get a taxi myself. I had booked a night in a hotel over the internet when I had booked my flight that turned out to be a very good place.

Most businesses were closed but I found a good, cheap restaurant close to the hotel and after breakfast walked along the river. Known local as Sông Hương or Hương Giang or perfume river, it splits the city. Supposedly the flowers from upstream orchards lose enough blossoms into its waters that it smells fragrant. Lots of flowers were in bloom but I neither though it smelled bad nor especially nice. There were a handful of these elaborate tour boats designed like dragons which was an imperial symbol and Hue had been an imperial city. There were some beautiful gardens with multiple pagodas in a park on the citadel side of the river and like in many tourist spots, duck paddle-boats for rent.

Hue landmark, the Citadel

A huge area on this side of the river is referred to as the citadel and within the Citadel is the main imperial enclosure. So a royal inner city within a royal city. It was formerly the capital of Vietnam and was heavily bombed. What remains is still impressive. Surrounding both was a series of moats and fortifications. Pictures also include the bridge over the moat and the main entrance to imperial enclosure. Once inside there were an array of cannons.

Citadel heavily bombed

The grounds are extensive and fortunately there are still some fine old buildings that survived the western bombing that destroyed the vast majority of the complex. There seemed to be a handful of distinctly different architctural styles. So not all buildings look alike but many look similar to some others.

Royal Theater

This was the royal theater. The interior of the theater was stunningly ornate.

Museum of imperial artifacts

Some of the bigger buildings contained exhibitions of imperial artifacts. The emperor’s robes were definitely not invisible and often had sleeves that looked like they would hang down to the floor. I have to doubt the authenticity of the costumes found in the room next to a display of thrones but they had a whole wardrobe where people could get dressed up and have their picture taken posing as a king.

Citadel pagodas & temples

There was some intricate stone work that formed ponds and what must have been the foundation of temples or at least pagodas. Not sure if the remaining buildings like this pagoda missed getting bombed or were painstakingly rebuilt from the ruins. The carvings were often of dragon motifs. The last photo is the back entrance and moat to the inner enclosure.

Hue family invitation for Tet

I had an old buddy from University who ended up in Saigon about 15 years before he was still there in 2014. He gave me the cell phone number of a couple of friends of his that turned out to be a great help. The first one was an Armenian raised in Ethiopia who had migrated to California and eventually to Vietnam where he married a woman from Hue. They and their young son had gone on to Malaysia a few years previous for work but they all missed Vietnam and were back to visit the family for the main Tet holidays.

I got a hold of him on my cell phone near the end of my visit to the citadel. Rather than trying to find a bike to rent to see the temples some ways out of the center, I went to meet them. He and his wife and son (pictured to the right) had a taxi and we stopped to get a supply of beer on the way to the wife’s parents’ home. It could have been a bit awkward but they were very welcoming and gave me a chance to see how locals celebrate such an occasion.

Men drink, women serve

The women were somewhere in the back while the men were in the living room being served Vietnamese tapas and drinking. Like in Bavaria, one yelled; “one, two, three DRINK” and touched drinking vessels which in this case were cans of beer. There was plenty of hard liquor on the table but I made it clear that beer was as strong of a spirit as I like. I had to nurse the beers along since I am not a big drinker. The empties were tossed under the table which created quite a mound of aluminum by the time we were done. To earn my keep I put on a juggling show with fruits that was well received but would have been much more impressive if I had not left my clubs in the hotel.

Eventually, we went to the house of another relative; more drinking and eating and juggling and everyone had a good time. I got dropped off early in the evening and would have checked out some of the restaurants and bars but was feeling at my limit. Through the hotel I booked a ticked the next day to take me to Hoi An. I am sure I could have kept my room another night and had not seen the local temples but wasn’t so convinced of their worth that I would change plans to stay longer although I now regret the decision a little.

What surprised me was that many of the people I met traveling were not impressed with Hue at all. In the end I have to say that there are not so many impressive historical sites left in Vietnam and while I agree with many sentiments that Hoi An is quainter, the citadel in Hue was pretty amazing and more so when one thinks that it is just a fraction of its former self.

Hoi An, Vietnam

The bus ride to Hoi An was about 5 hours and for me enjoyable. After being in the north, here was suddenly the vision of Vietnam most of us have in our head. Jagged green mountains and terraces of sprouting rice. We went through Da Nang but like most tourists I was more focused on getting on to Hoi An, 40 more Km down the coast. I later meet a couple who had liked Da Nang so much that they spent almost a week there. Seems that although it is not so quaint like Hoi An but it has grown into a major city with a lot of cultural things happening.

I eventually found a reasonable room but it was rather expensive compared to the ones I had had until then. Problem was that Hoi An has become one of the most popular destinations for Tet which drives up the prices. I eventually rented a bike for a couple of days but my hotel was close enough that I could easily walk to the center. Much of the preserved old quarter runs along the river and this bridge over the Thu Bồn River is pretty much the central icon of it all. The riverfront on the other side was also one restaurant after another and had the best views to watch life go by.

Old Hoi An riverfront, wooden boats

It was a beautiful setting along the river with the old houses and boats and they seemed to remove the garbage so there were no bad smells or any mosquitos this time of year. There were a few boats that were floating restaurants but most were simple fishing vessels.

Hoi An beggar on boat

I really like this photos but was not sure where to put it. Despite its economic advancements there are still of course people with hardships. But openly begging on the street was almost non-existent. Here was an exception in Hoi An. Interesting was that rather than on the street the guy was reclined on a boat. This meant people had to notice him and go over to the water edge to give him something. Wouldn’t seem like the most efficient way to beg but maybe it was his boat and being on private property got around laws against public begging. I have to wonder if the government actually takes care of the most desperate in society or if they are invisible due to laws keeping them out of sight. It’s a better image of prosperity without panhandlers.

Hoi An, Japanese Bridge

There was a small creek running into the river a few hundred meters from the main bridge with another bridge over it called the Japanese Bridge. It was a covered bridge and very ornate with some religious shrines inside. Shown is also entrance and interior space of the Japanese bridge.

Hoi An architecture, paper lanterns

The street parallel to the waterfront had a lot of shops and everywhere one saw paper lanterns which were popular souvenirs for the many Vietnamese tourists and I even saw places offering courses in lantern making. The next photos show typical examples of the 2 predominate styles of architecture. Hoi An was once a center of trade with many Japanese and Chinese merchants who used many of these buildings are warehouses as well as living quarters. The Japanese eventually stopped coming as their country closed to the outside world but the Chinese continued to play a major role in the local economy. There are many temples and big houses that were the meeting places of different Chinese society groups.

Traditional pharmacy

One of the most interesting buildings was this old pharmacy. Inside were many old containers for traditional medicines and scrolls that I assume has something to do with medicine.

Hoi An Temples, Chinese style houses

Normally one has to pay for a ticket to see the temples and the old houses open to the public but there was free entrance for everyone for the main days of Tet. Here are just a few of various Hoi An temples which came in all sizes.

Tet festivities in Hoi An

Going upwards along the river, there were displays and booths, stages and tents set up for the Tet festivities, which really got going in the evening. Party time meant lots of extra food vendors on the streets. And while many shops closed during the heigth of festivities, street markets seemed to be unaffected.

Tet festival decorations

Many of the festival displays had a nationalistic theme suggesting protection of the father land. Also popular were horse figures which was the main symbol represented since it was the start of the lunar year of the horse. I heard no mention of the Chinese influence in connection with the Tet holidays but they share the same 12 animals as symbols of the zodiac with the exception that the rabbit in China is substituted by the cat in Vietnam. It has been theorized that cats were simply not so wide spread in China as in Vietnam when these systems were developed.

Game booths, festival eateries

There were plenty of games of chance; at least some I saw were not intended for small kids I presume since the prize was a can of beer rather than a stuffed animal. But like in much of Asia, the superstition of luck is an important one even to the point where an odd number of people in a photo is unlucky. I had a number of young people in Hoi An that wanted to take a picture with me and now I have to wonder if it actually had more to do with evening out the number in their photo rather than being amused at the foreigner. And while no shortage of restaurants in Hoi An, there were of course lots of simple eateries set up for the festivities.

Public announcements outside of Hoi An

I took a long bike ride up river going through a village that was supposed to be famous for its ceramics but I never saw any. I did see the next 2 signs along the way that follow the tradition of and style of propaganda posters during the war. The one seemed to be a public service announcement to discourage the use of plastic bags. The over usage of plastic seems to have gone hand in hand with the idea of modern technology and sanitary precautions. Now people around the world have to learn that not everything modern is an improvement.

Rice fields – An Bang Beach

I spent parts of 2 days of my 4 days in Hoi An at An Bang Beach, which was a flat 4 kilometer bike ride. Along the way I had my first opportunity to take the clichéd tourist photo of Vietnam; people working in the rice paddies. I had seen some such scenes by Sapa in the north – only there wasn’t any rice growing yet. And yes, Vietnam does grow an abundance of rice and good rice at that. There was a large river to cross where the water for the rice terraces was irrigated from. I saw many constructions made out of sticks in the water that I assume were some kind of fish farming.

An Bang Beach

The beach was nice; it ran on for tens of kilometers and at least in front of the restaurants was mostly garbage free. Hardly anyone went in the water while I was there but I am not sure why. It might have been a little cool but not too cold to swim but I simply felt like chilling out on land never got around to going in myself. I was thinking that I would have plenty of opportunities to swim further south in Nha Trang and Mui Ne but at the time I didn’t appreciate how pleasant and relaxing this beach really was. I’ve heard that most of the sand is disappearing to erosion since I visited. A real shame as this was probably the cleanest Vietnamese beach I encountered.

There were a few souvenir sellers and women offering massage but not to the point of being annoying. I think one got charged a dollar or two to use the lounge chairs under the grass umbrellas but one could use them for free if you bought a meal.  I was surprised that the food I had here was very good and not more expensive than most places in town. When one arrives by bike, they virtually force you to dismount and park and then charge you. No one collected when I left my bike but then they demanded money when I left and couldn’t produce a stub. They asked for something like 3 dollars but I gave them 1 with a smile and they accepted it. The next day I parked a hundred meters or so before I got to the end of the road to avoid the hassle.

Typical Vietnamese round boats

There were many of these round boats that one sees all over Vietnam. Many seemed to be fiberglass but all of the ones here were woven natural materials like a big flat basket. Often used just to cross a river, they actually used these to fish in the open sea. They are propelled with just one oar that is pushed side to side behind like the tail of a fish rather than lifted out of the water like a canoe or row boat.

Cam Kim Island

There was a delta by Hoi An and a constant flow of small ferries docked by the market near the center. They took passengers and many motorbikes to Cam Kim Island which was about a 15 minute ride. I made the smart decision to take a bicycle with me and spent about 3 or 4 hours riding all over. There were small communities and single houses a midst the fields and farms on the totally cultivate island. It is irregularly shaped and the sometimes unpaved roads were rarely straight and often dead ended.

I was semi-lost half of the time but knew it was big enough to get too far off the beaten track. What was surprising was the reaction of the people when I rode by. Hoi An is just a short boat ride away and one of the most visited places in the country and here the people acted like they had hardly ever seen a foreigner. There seemed to be another temple every 500 meters, some of them fairly big but many were tiny but elaborately cared for.

Cam Kim Island rural agriculture

The island was mostly cultivated: farms with plenty of veggies and even corn but a good amount of rice paddies as well. I didn’t see any herds of lage animals but many farmers seemed to have a water buffalo or two as beasts of burden and a couple of milk cows.

Cam Kim Island Community Center

I’m not sure what this place was below, a community center or what? It was not a temple but they had lots of traditional decoration and a stage set up for the Tet festivities and some musicians playing traditional instruments.

Mobile gasoline pumps

To the right was something I saw in even larger urban settings, a gas pump for the motorbikes which is wheeled out in front of a shop. I read somewhere that they are not recommended because of the risk of water or other impurities but in many places there is no big gas station and probably not the economic incentive to build one.

Hoi An to Nha Trang

I booked a bus through my hotel in Hoi An to Nha Trang leaving in the early evening arriving about 5 am in the morning. It was a sleeper seat where one could stretch out horizontally but the places were on two levels and then in addition they put some people on the floor. There was a bathroom on board but one had no chance to step over the people in the small passages to get there. Luckily they made a late night stop to eat that I used to hit the facilities. I avoided drinking anything on this and most of my other bus trips, possibly getting a bit dehydrated but avoiding having to deal with onboard toilets.

I had the number of another friend of my friend in Saigon and I had had a couple of short calls with Denny to announce my arrival but it was so early when I got in that I tried to look for a room on my own. What I found was an abundance of hotels but not a single vacancy; even at double or more the normal price, rooms were full.

American jeeps

After searching for more than an hour, I got breakfast at this restaurant that was just opening and then called Denny. He kind of saved my ass by arranging a room for me at his hotel where he had stayed half a year for most of the past 21 years. The price was not as cheap as during normal times but still affordable and just one and a half blocks from the beach. One sees a lot of jeeps, often used to take tourists around on adventure outings. Not unique but most of them were not vintage American ones from during the war like this one, something that appeared to have kind of a cult status.

Nha Trang Beach

The attraction of Nha Trang is that it is a good sized city with a large and long beach right there in the middle of it all. There are plenty of places where you can get a lounge chair and buy drinks or other places to just hang out. Or if you are one of the many Russian tourists, you go to he beach and down many drinks.The only drawback was that it faces east and the sun would disappear from the beach by late afternoon. Much of the beach is fronted by parkway and by this landmark tower. Just off of the beach here is the city hall fronted by a big open plaza where I usually saw dozens of people flying kites in the late afternoon.

Nha Trang, Vietnam’s party town

Nha Trang is known as a party town; the center full of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies including many owned by westerners. I didn’t do a booze cruise they it seemed pretty popular with the tourists. Denny showed me around a bit including taking me on his motorcycle but after 2 days he had to take a trip to Saigon and unfortunately didn’t return by the time I left. In other places this scene might have been too irreverent; a temple in the midst of the tourist center but not too holy to have a fruit stand set up in front. And like all over Vietnam there were plenty of fish and seafood restaurants in Nha Trang. But even locals appeared to eat out fairly regularly, just more so at the simpler places.

Heavy Russian presence

This was a funny contrast, the Texas b-b-q place next door to the Soviet Union restaurant. I had not seen many Russians until this point but Nha Trang and most beach towns further south are overrun by them. They don’t seem to care about culture, just warm weather and being catered to. They don’t need a visa and many shops and restaurants have signs and menus if not personnel that speak Russian, sometimes to the exclusion of English.

Strange things on the menus like crocodile and snake head soup are not so much a local delicacy as much as something the Russians demand. I’ve meet some Russians here and there on my travels but there were masses of them here and most didn’t seem to speak much if any English and they overwhelmingly fit the stereotype of being fat, lousy dressers and drunk. Funny thing was that so many of them had trophy wives. I didn’t go to any 5 star resorts so these were obviously not the nouveau riche but I had to wonder how many of them might be small time gangsters; I’m truly not prejudice but every other cliché fit to them. Luxury stores catered to the Russians and this hotel caught my eye even though the stories of Trump and his golden shower with Russian hookers didn’t happen until later. Who knows maybe Trump owns this place.

Same same but different

Same same but different cafe. I didn’t hear this expression as often here as I had heard it in other parts of Asia but the concept is still popular. One looks for something and the seller will try to convince you to buy what he has to sell no matter how different it is. I liked this other version; same thing but cheaper – hard to argue with that concept as long as the quality if adequate.

Long Son Pagoda – Nha Trang

One of the major sites to visit in Nha Trang was the Long Son Pagoda complex a few kilometers west of the center. I rented a bike which was not as easy as I had found elsewhere. I had arranged for one at a travel agency but the one they tried to give me was much too small and not adjustable and lock was broken so I had to go looking for another one and most places just rented motorbikes. I stopped to look at a large church on the way but Long Son was my real destination. The complex is built on a hill with a large temple down below and a huge sitting Buddha at the crown. Images include the entrance, Buddhist nuns about to ascend the first level of stairs, murals on the temple and burning incense in front of the temple.

Commerical usage of Long Son pogada complex

Within the temple complex grounds were places to eat and vendors selling things like incense. Not surprising I guess that business is associated with religion since prosperity and wealth seem to be the goal of many prayers.

Pagoda, sleeping Buddha

Around half way to the top is level is a pagoda. Above the pagoda is a large sleeping Buddha, a presentation I’d seen more often seen in Sri Lanka.

Sitting Buddha, mausoleums

At the top is the sitting Buddha surrounded by a level of mausoleums for interned ashes. Locals liked to pose in front of the Buddha, which has a bunch of communist heroes displayed at the base. Like in a graveyard, people often leave offerings of flowers, incense and some of the deceased’s favorite snacks.

Po Nagar Cham Towers

The other big cultural attraction in Nha Trang is the Po Nagar Cham towers on a hill a few KM north-east and over the river from Long Son. Not a long ride by bike although there is a lot of traffic. The architecture was virtually the same as what I would later see by Mui Ne only more massive; backed brick rather than stone the main source of building material.

Views from Po Nagar Cham tower complex

There was a nice view south back towards the center of Nha Trang from different levels of the Po Nagar complex. Many large boats seemed to ancor here in the estuary

Cham tower architecture

Some views of the main towers. The towers all had a small dark room with a high conical ceiling where the people still gave offerings and worshiped. Woman with traditional dress the Ao Dai, which is typically half way down the calf with long slits on the sides with long pants or a long skirt worn underneath. They were mostly worn for fancy occasions and looked very stylish. It seemed not to be required but for modesty sake they asked that people with shorts or sleaveless top war a gray robe to go inside of teh stupas. There was a pülace where one got and gave back the robes for free.

Drowned man by Nha Trang bridge

On my way to the Po Nagar Cham tower complex I had crossed the lower bridge on my bike and spotted a crowd down by the river bank. I had a premonition of something bad and when I went to investigate, found a corpse under a small roof surrounded by people. They had a jacket over his head and rather than trying to revive him they were putting water on his hands and stroking them, which might have helped to keep the rigor mortis from stiffening his limbs. I hesitated thinking maybe nobody had an idea about how to administer CPR and if I shouldn’t try. But it was obvious that he must have been in this condition for at least 15 minutes by the time I got there and without speaking the language I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. I did take a few photos from the spot. Seemed a sad trashed filled place to die.

Save a life before leaving Nha Trang

On my way back to the center I saw the parade shown farther below and then took a break and had a blueberry milk-shake at a sidewalk cafe. I wrote in my journal and had to contemplate all I had seen that day including the dead body. The was a small boy of about 18 month that was trying to climb onto a motorcycle and I got nervous keeping an eye on him thinking he could pull the vehicle over onto himself. Nobody else paid him any attention and I wasn’t even sure where he belonged to.

Then suddenly he darted between 2 parked cars and out into the busy street. I jumped out after him and grabbed him back without even having a chance to see if I would have been run over as well. I put the kid back on the sidewalk and then saw that he belonged to a family some meters away who never noticed a thing. I hoped it balanced out my possible bad Karma for not attempting CPR earlier but actually felt more pissed at the family’s neglect to keep an eye on the kid than I felt any pride in doing a good deed.

Nha Trang Tet parade

After visiting the towers and just riding around the area a bit, I headed toward the up bridge shown before to circle back to town. On the way I came upon a large group setting up to make a parade as part of the Tet festivities. There were different groups, one with red banners, others with flowers, a bunch of what looked to be Buddhist nuns.

Tet parade marching band

Like in any good parade they had a marching band wearing what looked like military uniforms. It was rather hot in the sun and both the participants and many spectators got restless as the time went by. After more than half an hour, they had still not started to move and I lost interest and hopped on my bike and continued back to the center.

Dalat, city in the hills

I had spent 4 days in Nha Trang and felt a bit restless so I booked a bus to the highland city of Dalat, just around 120 KM but it took a good 5 hours winding up the mountains. The views were almost spectacular much of the early part of the journey but a lot of the terrain close to Dalat was industrial and lacked much charm. Denny in Nha Trang had recommended a hotel in Dalat that was a little tricky to find as the street address didn’t correspond to the card I had but the owner was friendly and the price was extremely cheap. There was a large manmade lake by the center that I choose as my first place to visit after having showered and eating a good lunch.

Dalat Lake polluted

Dalat lake was not very exciting. It didn’t stink but was full of algae and there were numerous dead fish and garbage floating in it. There were multiple places that rented out paddle boats but only a few people actually paddling. The Tet holidays were officially finished but I didn’t have the feeling that Dalat was the place to be for Tet anyway. It was popularized by people wanting to get away from the heat during the hotter seasons and there were few tourists around.

Dalat Garden Exhibition

The lake was bigger than I had though and it was a long walk to the one end where there was a big garden and flower exhibition. One could look inside without entering and it did not look worth paying money for. The bushes in front of the horticultural exhibition were sculpted to look like dragons.

Man made tourist attractions in Dalat

Although the nature around the area is attractive the city of Dalat itself doesn’t have much of interest. But it seemed like they were trying hard to make it into a tourist destination for locals. There were multiple places with many bicycles for rent, most tandems. There was also a kids’ amusement park but it was closed. In an attempt to go upscale, there was also a golf course with a fancy sign. How successful all of these strategies might be I couldn’t judge. It didn’t seem to be one of the places people go for the Tet holidays so it was extremely quiet.

Exploring Dalat center

I had thought to circle around the lake but realized it would take most of the day so I went back the way I came and was on the outlook to rent a bike. I looked at my map and consulted my Lonely Planet and went off towards the only place I saw listed but they didn’t have any bikes. I started toward the center of the city again and found a bunch of places that had these terrible tandems that the local kids found funny to putter around on but seemed a poor way of getting around. There was supposed to be a train museum and a house with very strange architecture that I had intended to visit but by now it was late afternoon and I ran out of steam.

I explored the center and central market and went back to my hotel to chill out and have some dinner. Afterwards I returned to the center and continued on to another area of town than where I was staying that had a bunch of hotels and popular restaurants where the most of the foreign travelers hung out. I had a drink outside at a place that specialized in dishes with chocolate. There was a group of German and Swiss and a couple of other westerners there that I more or less eavesdropped on, finding it funny that they would talk German sometimes assuming the rest of us didn’t understand.

In addition to normal shops there were an unusual amount of flower and plant shops. I assume that there are probably a lot of plants that thrive in the mountainous local terrain that aren’t seen elsewhere. There were also a lot of street vendors and simple street eateries.

I had thought I would stay at least another day but decided to leave the next morning to Mui Ne. Most of the other sites in Dalat didn’t sound so exciting or there were waterfalls in the area but sounded like they were logistically difficult to get to and like a lot of sites in Vietnam – worth seeing if you are in a place and needed something to do but not so interesting that one would necessarily go out of their way to see them.

Part 3 – Southern Vietnam

My journey to Vietnam continues south on the following page: southern Vietnam

So, those were just a few tales from my many travels over the last thirty and something years. I hope you've enjoyed another side of a traveling clown! If you want, write me an email or better yet, book my show or set a link to this website or just state me as the beneficiary of your will!

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