Dong Ha, Vietnam
Our Vietnam itinerary was bookended by Ho Chi Minh in the South and Hanoi in the North. We decided to spend two weeks busing the thousand miles between the two instead of flying, taking the train, or bicycling (we actually met a pair of Aussies who did that), breaking our journey at various cities along the way.
From Ho Chi Minh we headed to Dalat, a mountain town seven hours northeast, where domestic tourists flock to escape the heat and commotion of the city and international tourists launch trips to the nearby hiking trails and natural attractions. We weren’t in the mood to do any physical activities, so our stay lasted less than a day. We did enjoy a cup of Dalat coffee, served Vietnamese style with an individual drip filter and condensed milk.
Continuing on to Nha Trang, the country’s premier beach destination, we found a hotel room on a high floor overlooking the beach. Unfortunately it was too hot to swim during the day and the murky water wasn’t that appealing even as it cooled off. We again ran into a couple we had met on the Laos Mekong River cruise, and spent our time with them, visiting a local spa and walking through the night market.
We boarded an overnight “sleeper bus” with beds instead of seats and woke up the following morning in Hoi An. As far as I can tell, the main reason anyone stops here is to buy custom made clothes. Its streets are lined with tailor shop after tailor shop, all displaying similar clothing and mannequins, with employees calling out to passersby.
Sarah decided to add to her wardrobe, but not having specific ideas in mind we visited several shops to view off the rack clothing for ideas. After she found what she wanted and negotiations over price were settled, she was measured for dresses, shirts, and a suit. We were told to return the following day for further alterations as the tailors would work through the night.
While waiting, we visited the nearby Hindu temples of My Son that were built by the ancient Cham empire between the 4th and 13th century. The site was nowhere near as well preserved as the temples of Angkor Wat due to a combination of neglect and US bombs, but remain the largest extant collection of Cham ruins.
After stopping at the post office to send Sarah’s new clothes home, we moved on to Hue, Vietnam’s capital during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 until its last emperor abdicated in 1945. The Imperial City, the walled home of the emperor and his wives and eunuchs, is currently being rebuilt after being damaged by the French and American wars. The impressive main entrance is the best preserved area of the site – but we weren’t aware of this until paying the admission fee to go inside.
Each of the Nguyen emperors had mausoleums constructed for him around Hue. Tours left early in the morning to visit several of them, but Sarah and I correctly surmised that seeing one would be adequate. We biked a few miles to the tomb of Tu Doc, the longest reigning emperor. The mausoleum featured a pond where the emperor wrote poetry…
…two temples, his autobiography carved into stone tablets, and the tombs of Tu Doc, his wife, and his adopted son.
A few hours north of Hue is the former demilitarized zone (DMZ) established in 1954 to separate North and South Vietnam. It was eventually overrun by the North Vietnamese in 1972 and today tourists can take a day long tour to the area visiting several historic sites and monuments. One memorial commemorates the soldiers who successfully cut the electronic McNamara line, named after the US Secretary of Defense, allowing North Vietnamese to infiltrate south.
The American base at Khe Sanh abandoned in 1968 now features a museum, bunkers, several tanks and helicopters.
Pictures of American soldiers are displayed with captions such as “The American soldiers’ panic shows on their faces” and “Being encircled and attacked interminably, the American soldiers have to live miserably at bases” and “Looking up the way to escape”.
Our final bus was to leave from Hue to Hanoi, but rather going south from the DMZ just to turn around, we waited in a rest stop in the city of Dong Ha to be picked up along the way. Time went by quickly thanks to two local boys, ages 10 and 11, who sat with us to practice their English, asking our names, ages, favorite sports and animals. Of course when our bus arrived we were left with the worst seats on board – Sarah later likened our overnight journey to sleeping in a coffin – but it mercifully it was the last marathon bus for us before reaching Hanoi.