Wheel alignment

Saturday, 2 April 2011

G&J's Excellent Asian Adventure, part 3

The flight from Hanoi to Hue was our first experience of Vietnamese domestic air travel and we wondered whether it was going to make Aeroflot look like the benchmark for world airline safety.  Check-in was a breeze with our guide Giau's legendary efficiency and the departure lounge was a world removed from the arrivals hall which resembled something from a John Le Carre cold war espionage novel. The view through the departure lounge windows was equally reassuring as Vietnam Airlines were using modern, western aircraft as opposed to Illushins and Antanovs! The only minus on the ledger when the flight was called was that Vietnamese airports have yet to master decent boarding procedures. For starters, passengers weren't called by blocks of numbered rows, resulting in a huge scrum at the departure lounge doors.  Airbridges also seemed in short supply with just steps at the fore and aft hatches, resulting in traffic jams both on the steps, then in the aircraft aisle itself with rear boarders heading for the front of the aircraft and vice-versa!  However, all that was minor in the scheme of things and provided some light amusement.  The aircraft itself was immaculate, the service efficient and a very pleasant flight.

Beautiful, modern western aircraft.  What a relief!

Landing at Hue, the increase in air temperature and humidity were immediately apparent - somewhere in the mid 20's C as opposed to 15 or below in Hanoi.  After giving southern girl Giau a hard time for wearing a coat, gloves and a scarf in Hanoi whilst we were dressed much more lightly, she was quietly plotting to run us around in the increasing temperatures further south to see how quickly we expired.  Told you in the last post that she had a wicked sense of humour!

I don't normally bother to comment on accommodation as it's  simply a place to lay your head before going out exploring and eating with the locals.  All our hotels were really really good but La Residence in Hue was something else!  Situated right by the river, it was the former French Governor's residence; expanded but the chic Art Deco style has been maintained - just gorgeous.  Here's a photo from our balcony:

La Residence, Hue.  Understated magnificence

A number of things made it special but the clincher was that it felt more like a home than a hotel and that's something I've rarely experienced.  The staff were right on their game but at the same time, discreet and understated - really hard to describe but struck a perfect note.  Breakfasts were simply bewildering in terms of choice, you name it, they had it with a strong French influence.  We just stuck to fresh fruit and croissants which were light as a feather, accompanied by very runny Brie cheese that was made in heaven.  If you're going to Hue, La Residence is a must!

Now for something for the throttle happy amongst us which I hadn't noticed in Hanoi, but must have been there. Near the hotel were a set of traffic lights shown in the photo below.  Never seen one of the features anywhere before!

 Perfect for drag racing!

The feature I'm alluding to is the countdown shown in red.  In this instance, 5 seconds to go before it turns green, then starts a 30 second countdown back to red.  It seems to work just fine in warning people to ease up or help patience but with the western mindset, it would make an excellent drag racing Xmas tree for those so inclined (more than a few male bike riders haha).  A few round our way would be fun.

The day started with a boat trip on the Perfume River, so-called because of the alleged fragrance due to a particular forest upstream shedding aromatic leaves into it.
Dragon boats awaiting passengers

Th river is still extensively used for commerce and there were boats of all descriptions plying their trade.  I was particularly taken with one which was carrying river sand for concrete-making. Someone loading it must have got a bit enthusiastic as I swear it only had an inch of freeboard.  Here you are....
 Accident waiting to happen!

A trip was then made to the Ancient Citadel, which was the capital of Vietnam from 1802-1945, where the last King lived.  10 metre thick walls surrounded by moats, it's an impressive piece of architecture and is the size of a small town.  

The Ancient Citadel

One of the decorative features I loved was the application of small coloured pottery pieces to make mosaics on the buildings.  Here are two examples:

Mosaic dragon roof corner-piece

Spectacular mosaic window

Bronze casting on a big scale

After a bite to eat, we visited a king's tomb.  Crikey, they did death on a grand scale back then! The elevated tomb and surroundings covered acres and also had copious wise men and warrior effigies to accompany the King in the afterlife.  It must have literally cost a King's ransom.

Tomb it may concern...

Warriors and wise men for the afterlife

With all the emphasis on royalty during the day, we knew that we were attending an Emperor's banquet that evening at a restaurant in town but Giau had kept quiet about the details.  I think her silence was part-payback for all the teasing we'd been giving her over the previous days.

Arriving at the restaurant, 4 unsuspecting Kiwis were greeted outside by the owner and taken into a room where the horror started to dawn.  The room was filled with ornate costumes befitting an Emperor's banquet and we were expected to wear them!  Visions of being the only 4 people in the restaurant clothed in joke costume flitted through the brain as did plans to wreak revenge on Giau.  As it happened, we were lead into a beautifully-decorated private anteroom where a small orchestra were waiting to play traditional music and sing just for us.  All a bit overwhelming but the privacy avoided any embarrassment with the clothing.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear......

Phoenix-shaped entrée

A duet by 2 orchestra members

Despite earlier worries, costume wearing (ahem...in private) was fine, the food divine and the small orchestra was superb.  If you've never heard of an instrument called a monochord, go to YouTube and find it.  Fantastic instrument and I'm surprised that a few rock bands don't use them.

We drove from Hue down to Da Nang via the Hai Van Pass.  The pass has World Heritage status and is really nice but to be honest, it isn't as spectacular as any of the major mountain passes in NZ's south island.  It would be great for a fang on a fast bike, but that would only be until you ended up as a radiator ornament on a big truck overtaking on a blind bend as they are wont to do out of town.

Hai Van Pass, looking towards Da Nang and China Beach

This is what you call a compact for a family of 4!

It occurred to me that with the profit margins on small bike sales in places like Vietnam, Malaysia and so on, Honda maybe don't give a rat's arse (a Kiwi technical term) about whether their latest dog of a VFR1200 sports tourer sells like hot cakes in the west or not.  It's probably not going to make much of a dent in the company bottom line with the huge, constant sales of small bikes. 

Da Nang area
Da Nang was only a brief stopping point en route to the nearby Marble Mountains en route to our stay at Hoi An.  As we drove through, it was a surprise to see that substantial parts of Da Nang US military base still existed.  We drove along the frontage of China Beach but there was nothing special about it, although it would have been a wonderful diversion for the service people stationed in the region all that time ago.

Part of Da Nang military base

A brief stop was made at a museum showing sandstone carvings and a few bronzes made by the Cham people in centuries past.  Magnificent in detail and surprisingly durable, it was a worthwhile experience.

Fine detail on a statue plinth

Wonderful bronze figurine, about 1.5 metres tall

Major bike service centre!

The Marble Mountains just south of Da Nang were a revelation. A cluster of 5 limestone and marble hills and the surrounding buildings are almost exclusively devoted to making works of art from the marble.  Even at the top of one of the mountains, the sound of saws and chipping hammers was really pronounced.

View from one of the mountains

Marble carvers at work

Polishing one of the statues

The carving was of the highest order and again, prices were very reasonable and the produced both classical and modern abstract works.  A marble statue like the one above would cost around US$3000 to purchase AND ship to NZ.

Hoi An
Note for female readers and guys who care about their appearance.....  Hoi An Old Quarter is THE place to shop, especially for quality clothing and accessories, much of it being made to measure within a day.  It's also a stunningly beautiful and colourful place which we all fell deeply in love with.  Spending time wandering about in the old quarter looking in the shops, eating or drinking, people-watching and enjoying the architecture was a great experience, even for a cynical non-shopper like me.  Of course, temperatures in the 30's C required regular refreshment!

Hoi An Old Quarter - Bouganvillea growing everywhere

Beautiful old covered bridge

Huge illuminations on Hoi An river

Lantern shop at night

Plenty of late 60's Hondas still running

Scooter with Mick Doohan GP pretensions!

Mat weaving - takes 8 hours to complete

More central Vietnam in the next post........


  1. Another breathtaking part of your trip. I love the shot down the Hai Van pass. It is awakening my desire in exploring Vietnam by bike (or maybe scooter?)
    And I will refrain from commenting on the ornate clothing. Just picture me rolling on the floor laughing my ass off (in text speech: ROFLMAO).
    Good for you, that the blog allows you some privacy ;-)

  2. Cheers Sonja! Knowing what I do now (more comments on Vietnamese driving later), I wouldn't be averse to riding either. However, having a guide helped in seeing places that we'd never have found for ourselves. Incidentally, I've read of some specific motorcycle tours in scenic parts of 'nam, both on road and non-difficult off-road trails which have received critical acclaim - very tempting!

    You may indeed laugh your ass off, it seems to be an occupational hazard in my case. :-). Privacy as inasmuch that the world's motorcycling population doesn't actually need to do it to my face? ;-)

  3. I just saw a show on TV last night about three Brits riding scooters the length of Vietnam. Silly show but beautiful scenery and showed the crazy traffic.

    Great pictures and no comment on the costumes. Better you than me...

  4. Richard:
    Haven't seen that programme, must keep an eye out for it. Traffic is better out of the main centres - I'll give my overall impressions in a bit.

    I'm glad you decided not to comment, so thank you for that :-)

  5. Geoff, I would like to think you indulged in perhaps a tailored suit, perhaps a dress jacket, or am i being the tue optimist! What am saying.....you have red stubbies!

    Enjoying reading about your adventures very much, it looks like the kind of place which would fascinate me, and my love of Asian people,culture and food.

    P.S the "hat" at the restaurant really suits you.

  6. Roger:
    I have an expensive suit which is one too many for living in Coromandel :-). You are indeed an optimist! All I bought purely for myself on the trip was a new wallet as my old one was stuffed and a cool little kitchen tool for turning carrots into carrot flowers for Asian meals and salads! Jennie shopped rather more than me :-)

    Thank you. I will try and get a copy to slip over my Shoei!

  7. Great pictures. I love the architecture pictures and also the ones of the costumes. Nice of you to play along. You didn't sneak them home for later use did you? And what exactly was in your phoenix shaped entree?

    It looks like you guys were having a lot of fun. We shall live vicariously though you......

  8. Thanks Trobairitz - it's a truly amazing place. Ha ha, we hadn't much choice but to play along. Err, Hell would freeze over before we'd wear those clothes again - the hat was so heavy that it left ridge lines round my head for a couple of hours; looked like I'd had a skull graft!

    In the entrée, spring rolls were stuck in the fruit. They were crabmeat with bean sprouts and herbs, with a fish-based dipping sauce.

    We were having a ball - a couple of episodes or so yet to be written.

  9. I was with Trobairitz in my curiosity about the entree. Absolutely wonderful presentation! I'm a sucker for old citadels, forts, and palaces. Enjoyed those photos very much.

    Looking forward to more.


  10. Cheers Keith!
    For me, sights, weather and great food are really important parts of a holiday, but a great culture is the icing on the cake. The historical aspect of Vietnam combined with the wonderful people of today makes it an irresistible combination.

  11. Geoff:

    excellent trip. Love your costume and all the food. Lots to photograph, so many old structures ornately decorated. Traffic doesn't look too bad, perhaps you could have rented a scooter for a day

    Riding the Wet Coast

  12. Geoff

    The 3 silly Brits programme, was the Top Gear 2008 Christmas Special

  13. Bob:
    Thanks pal! Most of the nightmare traffic is confined to the cities and it thins out remarkably once you leave city confines. I'll comment on traffic habits shortly!

    Young Dai:
    Thanks very much for the heads up. Obviously missed it but can now look for it at the local bookstore.

    Thanks for dropping in!

  14. Stunning images and so colorful. I love the rich history - something we don't really have here in the U.S.

    The costume pics...priceless! I would have worried about a prank too, especially since your guide seemed fully up to the task of keeping four Kiwis in line.

  15. Kari:
    Same in NZ. We have a bit of really interesting Maori history but real colonisation didn't start until the 1840's so it's great to be somewhere with such an old culture.

    Yep, our guide was capable of anything to square things up. I'd been making fun of Giau in one shop and she threatened to throw me down the stairs! On the last day, we met another guide from the same company and she had a similar sense of fun. Probably endemic in the population!


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