Day 72 Đà Nẵng
Our last 17 course breakfast in the Hội An Chic today, which I already know we're not going to surpass in the remaining days. Our subsequent accommodation, with one exception, have been selected on their economic merits. And sadly, Ruth was bitten by a winged beast in the night which heralds the return of Bite Banter in all its attention-focussing, itchy, endlessness. However, exciting times ahead: we're off to Đà Nẵng today, and then on to Huế tomorrow which was the dynastic capital of Vietnam, and is close to the wartime DMZ.
We have an hour or so taxi-ride to Đà Nẵng along busy roads, and a windswept sea-front. Some miles in front of us we can see the enormous white statue of Lady Buddha, Vietnam's largest Buddhist statue, facing the sea stoically. Behind us lie the Marble Mountains, site of many pagodas from the Nguyen Dynasty and now sitting by a marble quarry, where Vietnam's wealthy peruse hotly sought-after sculptures and statues. It is to this we are bound this afternoon (for the pagodas, not the ornaments: our bags are bloody-well heavy enough), so after dumping the bags in the north of town, we hire their bikes. The roads here are typically manic and it's quite a juggernauty five miles down to the Marble Mountains.
When we get there, looking for something that isn't a sculpted recreation of the Venus de Milo to chain the bikes to, an elderly woman comes out of a nearby shop and indicates she will look after the bikes while we go and have a look. There are a few other bikes chained up in her yard so we give her the benefit of the doubt and let her walk them away. I would NEVER trust someone to do this in central London, but all the folks we've met have gone out of their way to be kind here, so what the heck.
There are lots of steps up Thuy Son, the largest of the Mountains (there are five clustered around here, named after the ancient elements; water, gold, earth, fire, and wood), and the one we're now panting up. It is impressive at the top though. The path swiftly diverges to offer about 8 different routes up in the trees, so naturally we get lost immediately. We traipse around the pagodas and the vast temple bells which are scattered up the mountain, finding the odd cave to slither through, and climb to Mt. Thuy, the summit, with its marvellous views. The sea is battering the beach to our east and ominous looking stormclouds away to the west.
A number of US planes were brought down by a nearby gun battery during the war and there is a plaque commemorating the bravery of those operating the battery up here. There are other tourists around, but not many, so we have much of it to ourselves which makes a change. Rather peculiarly, someone has made the choice to wire the whole place up to a PA system, and then pipe through Lionel Ritchie's back catalogue at a volume difficult to ignore. Yeesh, Lionel, there's a time and a place.
After we've had enough of the views and three times a lady, we go and pick up our bikes. When we offer money for their safe storage, the woman says "We don't want your pay for bicycle". What a country; outstanding people. "We rather you pay for marble." Thus ensues a slightly awkward 15 minutes where we are taken round, item-for-item, her shop of sculpture being implored to buy something heavy and shiny. "Looks beautiful in your dining room" she says, indicating a decorative bowl which is the size and weight of a small saloon car. We try and convey that we are carrying everything we're travelling with, but to no avail. Ruth relents and finds a small bracelet. The price goes up the longer she barters for it before we lose our patience and leave. She buys the bracelet in the end.
Back at our hotel, after another 5 miles of scooterageddon we look at where to go this evening. We're not too far from the river which seems to have a fairly buzzing nightlife along it, so we set off and walk towards the Dragon Bridge (look it up, it's bonkers - on a Saturday and Sunday it breathes fire at 9pm. We were there on a Friday).
We find a restaurant on the river called Fat Fish, which also sells the Saigon Special IPA we both enjoyed in Hội An a few days ago, so we pop in there with the intention of moving on after one. However, the beer is excellent and the food looks pretty good - we can see the river from our seat, so we decide to stay, and have a decent Vietnamese tapas of all our favourite dishes (spring rolls; Halong noodles; passionfruit). Afterwards, we walk over the Dragon Bridge and back up round the other side of the river. It does look quite lively, but we're both at the "didn't need all those spring rolls" phase of digestion, so mosey back home.
Day 73 Huế
We've booked a taxi to get us the 100 odd km to Huế today. We were going to get the Reunification Railway (which runs from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, was bombed to bits during the war and then rebuilt to bridge the north and south) but the taxi there is such peanuts, it is more economical than buying two train tickets.
We go via the Hai Van pass, a spectacular mountain road which curls up the Vietnamese coast to Huế. The morning is hanging with low cloud and we catch snatches of a picturesque landscape through breaks in the rain, pockmarked with pillboxes, pro-government posters and other signs of the conflict that tore through the region.
A few hours later, we pull into Huế and the roads are as daft as they've been since Ho Chi Minh. Huế has the dubious honour of receiving Vietnam's most rainfall, and ensuring we get the correct impression of the place, it's absolutely belting it down. By the time the driver screeches to a halt outside our hotel, a beaten-up 1980's relic, we've seen some terrifying road-use in the wet. We throw the bags in - we're on the 9th floor, but in this weather all view is cloud.
On the banks of the effervescently named Perfume River, Huế was made the capital of Vietnam in the early 19th century by the ruling Nguyễn dynasty. They established the enormous citadel in the city which was the seat of the Imperial Palace until 1945, when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had had enough of French rule (the emperor was largely seen as a puppet of it) and got them all to clear out. We head to the citadel now, decked out in our waterproof clothes (unused since New Zealand's Great Walks). By chance, we're very close to an excellent bakery (La Boulangerie Francaise, staffed by rehabilitated orphaned teenagers we learn) which at least doses us up on butter and sugar ready for the weather. Cheating death at every junction, we get to the Citadel (after crossing a bridge designed by a monsieur Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame) and it's obviously closed for the afternoon.
Slightly dejected and incredibly wet we ponder next moves. There is a plenitude of ancient architecture within the city limits which we had planned to cycle around, but it is so prohibitively pissing it down, we decide to go and get drunk instead. Heading back over Eiffel's bridge, we watch an American man who's adopted a reckless approach to crossing roads - stepping out without looking at anyone - get crunched in the nuts by a Honda front wheel. He stops a bike doing about 20mph dead with his gonads. Everyone who witnesses it winces on his behalf. He staggers off clutching at his groin.
Walking east along the Perfume River, we come across a road which is rife with neon-lit places-of-revelery and looks like just the ticket for our evening. We find one called Tipsy Bar (appropriately) and spend a few drinks cheerfully on their balcony, watching people dodge the puddles below. Afterwards, we wander up to another bar (which definitely doesn't look like a locals bar) called DMZ. Walking in, the manager informs us we can drink outside but they have a private function on. We thank him, and tell him his English is excellent. He replies, "it should be, I'm Australian"
We sit outside with a couple of Hanoi Beers, watching a Bao Bun salesman stuff a log into the burner he's got going on his cart - the fire roars out of the vents like a bloody flamethrower. They do smell delicious though. He moves on before we can secure his volatile produce, and we realise we haven't eaten anything since breakfast.
The Rough Guide has recommended a restaurant nearby which looks like someone's garage. It's bloody popular though. Called Hanh, it offers a five course meal for the equivalent of £6. The beer is 80p. A table is cleared and we are served five courses ofdelicousness. It is served without ceremony: the cans of beer are clonked down unopened and the plates similarly so, but it is excellent. A pair of Americans girls have (inexplicably) ordered about two dozen prawn pancakes and they offer us what they can't eat (about 22 prawn pancakes), so by the time we roll out, we've eaten like Kings, and for about £13 between us (we double it with the tip).
Huế is a good crack in the evening, but it's hammering down again so a few more drinks about does us for the day.
Day 74 Huế
It is wet wet wet again. Our hotel belies it's "rustic" aesthetic and serves up a very decent breakfast. Suitably reinforced for a day in the rain, we head out. We had planned on cycling around the town today, but Nadgate yesterday rather dampened the appeal of getting on the roads. We walk back to the, now open, Citadel and pay the entrance fee (which costs significantly more than our meal last night). Perhaps it's the relentless deluge, but we're not that impressed by the place. It must have been opulent in its time, but the Communist government had seen it as a symbol of the Colonial administration and neglected to maintain it until relatively recently.
There is some impressive architecture and some cracking gold-leaf, but the weather is too miserable fore one of us to truly give a shit. Ruth is more enamoured of it than I, she loves a geometric layout and a decorative roof, but we're both done before long. We walk along the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda, 170 years old, and an iconic building in Vietnam. The river walk is not as picturesque as we'd hoped (there's no pavement so we're on a hard shoulder all the way up) but the tower is impressive: 7 storeys, each dedicated to a different Buddha (ignorantly, I didn't know there was more than one). There has been a pagoda on the site since the 17th Century, but the feature which lingers longest is the 1960s Austin car, which drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in 1963, where he set fire to himself in protest at the government. The photograph of him serenely sitting in a road, while fire consumes him, rests behind the vehicle.
Back on the river, we ponder whether we can be arsed to walk back to the city. While we assess the rain, a scooter with two passengers overcooks it on the bend in front of us and skids into a wall, narrowly avoiding being thrown into the water. We go and see if the two chaps are okay (we only realise there's a passenger when he starts groaning underneath the bike) but the driver waves us away, apparently more embarassed than hurt. We decide against the road. There are a few boats moored up nearby, and one of them offers to take us back for a couple of pounds.
We chug back up the river, watching fisherman in the rain. The captain docks the thing, by ramming it into a set of stairs at the water edge back down town. We thank him nervously (It's really bollocksed up his bow. We're really at a loss what to do. there are a dozen or so monuments in the city that we wanted to see, but we're definitely not walking to them in the relentless bloody rain. Even by our standards, it's too early to start drinking for the day. We decide to get a cab to out-of-town Than Toan Bridge, 300 years of Japanese architecture which would doubtless look picturesque if it wasn't submerged under Huế's monthly rainfall.
We watch a farmer agonisingly drive a small Rotavator along a vast rice paddy. Poor bugger. We write today off to the weather. Back in town, we try to find a restaurant rated highly on Trip Advisor (called Serene) but a spontaneous deluge has us duck into a cafe called 054. It's actually a swell place - cheap beer, music which isn't awful synth pop (or Lionel Ritchie) and gratis French Fries (the crisp not the chip). We Google just where heck Serene is (opposite) and finally make it there for another five-course spectacle.
Day 75 DMZ
Mr Vinh picks us up for a tour of the Demilitarised Zone this morning. We booked this up yesterday, looking forward to a day under a roof. Mr Vinh is a veteran of the South Vietnamese Army who must be well into his 70s. He was an intelligence agent working for the US, who met Colin Powell, has a grenade shrapnel wound (he doesn't show us this) and a medal recognising his service to the US effort. He shows us the docs to prove it all. After ascertaining that neither us or our parents work in the UK government, and stressing that he will not answer any questions on the Communist Government of Vietnam we begin our tour. He turns out to be a fascinating bloke with an amazing insight on the Vietnam War. He can't be the only veteran of the losing army but it was something we'd not factored in to our trip around here: that there are folks who were captured and 're-educated' by the victorious Communist forces, having to adjust to a life opposite the one they fought for.
Mr Vinh and his driver takes us up the 'Highway of Hell" towards the DMZ. The DMZ marks a ribbon of land 10km deep, running from the the Ben Hai river at the East China Sea to the Laos border in the West. A site where the Northern forces massacred a retreating village after the Tet Offensive began in 1968. Off the main road is a well-tended Buddhist graveyard which includes a distressing amount of entire-family headstones.
Not much fiurther up the road is a church in Quang Tri. The place was captured by the North before being recaptured by the South (and US forces) before it fell again to the Northern armies at the end of the war. The church is shelled to shit. Bullet holes and mortar rounds pepper what's left of the walls and roof. A North Vietnamese officer and team operated from it according to Mr Vinh, and he shows the American mortar round hole through the roof which ended them.
We also go to a desolate beach (it is so rough on the seas today, even the fisherman aren't braving the waters) the site of a Viet Cong supply port, which the US shelled off the coast. There is some heavy pathetic fallacy going on.
Mr Vinh then takes us to the Vinh Moc tunnels, an entire village labyrinth built underground to avoid the bombs above. With three levels (the first is 10 metres underground, the third is 30 metres) a series of insufficient looking ventilation shafts link them up. 17 children were apparently born in this place, and as we walk around the narrow, dark, damp, short tunnels, you've got to take your hat off to them. Mr Vinh shows us around, quietly.
Our penultimate stop is the river crossing which marks the North/South divide (and we thought there was animosity in the UK) the original of which was blown up by the Americans. Now there is a (former) UN office, and a recent museum on the north bank with a (fairly balanceless) history of the DMZ, and the PA speakers which were used to blast propaganda to the south 24 hours a day. The south side of the old border has a statue of a Viet Cong woman and a series of palm leaves standing up looking like a cross between the metropolis poster and a fleet of missiles.
Our final stop of the day is the Doc Mieu Fire Base. Part of the so-called McNamara Line which ran west to the Laos border of acoustic and thermal detecting infrastructure which was supposed to be able to detect infiltrations from the North to South. It's effectiveness was widely disputed. The base was eventually captured by the North Vietnamese army, but the graveyard which stands there now tells a bleak story about the human cost. There are over 1000 unmarked graves. And 41 years later two UK tourists are walking around it all. Not for the first time this trip, we remark what it was all for.
We thank Mr Vinh for his fine company and superb commentary throughout, and wish him and his daughters well (we've seen them all in photographs throughout the day) when he leaves us at the hotel, bowing.