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Hoi An - The Town of Lanterns


Well, well, well, we have finally made it to the town that everyone has raved about our entire trip! Each traveller we ran into always asked us the same question, “Have you been”, or, “Are you going to Hoi An”? The moment we arrived, we realized why everyone was making such a fuss - there is something special about this gem of a town and it’s hard to explain without witnessing it in person. Hoi An has been inhabited for over 2200 years and has not evolved easily with the changing times. It was almost destroyed in the Tay Son rebellion and as the Thu Bon River silted up within the last century, the town was no longer able to support large vessels and lost its major port status to Danang. This was a blessing in disguise for the town though, as the town has retained its’ small town feel and charm. The Ancient Town, which is where most everyone spends their time, is now filled with buildings of many cultural influences. From the Japanese merchant houses, to the Chinese temples; French colonial buildings to Buddhist Pagoda’s, this town feels magical and accepting to whomever enters.







In order to visit the preserved Ancient buildings in the old town, we had to purchase an entrance ticket that allows access to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ticket however, only allows you to enter 5 out of hundreds of buildings, so we had to choose wisely. One of the sites we decided to see was an old Apothecary, filled with bottles, jars and vases – some of which held the original “medicines” used by the people of the town hundreds of years ago. Next we visited the Tan Ky House – a house built over 200 years ago and is still lived in by the same family. It was originally built by a Vietnamese family, however throughout the house there remains Chinese (poems and characters written on beams) and Japanese (ceilings carved with sabres) architectural influences. One beam in particular resides in the back of the house which is marked like a growth chart. However, instead of measuring the heights of children, the lines instead represent how high the water has been during many of Hoi An’s floods. In 1964, the largest flood of the century, the water almost reached the ceiling of the 1st floor – 9 or 10ft high.


The one day we did not explore the old town, we took a tour to My Son, which is an area 37km away from Hoi An, covered in religious Hindu temples built over 1000 years ago. Settled underneath the Sandstone Mountains, in a lush green jungle with trickling streams meandering throughout, this site was an extremely important area to the Champa Kingdom. It was used for prayer mostly, but was assumed to be a burial site for monarchs as well. The temples look similar in colour and shape to the temples of Angor Wat; however they are much smaller and are in poor condition. Because most of the temples were destroyed in the Vietnam War (the Northern Vietnamese fighters were hiding in the temples, so the American’s bombed the entire area destroying all but 20 structures) archaeologists and local agencies have been trying to rebuild them as naturally as possible. This is noticeable in the temples as the newest areas have bright orange stones and the original areas are a darker black color. The archaeologists are still uncertain of exactly how these structures were constructed and are amazed that the older bricks are continuing to outlast the new ones.







As we neared the end of our time in Hoi An, we realized that one of our favourite things about this town was exploring at night. There were lights shining up and down the streets with neon signs flashing outside stores and restaurants. People were wandering around with their eyes peering into every shop trying to figure out how much to bargain for. And then, there were the lanterns. Oh, the lanterns! There were so many of them everywhere and they were absolutely beautiful, as if they were floating above us in the night sky, adding to the magical spell this town has already cast upon us. Each lantern had its’ own shape and colour and they were strung up for what seemed like miles, from shop to shop, building to building. No matter what was happening around the town, they seemed to steal the show as every tourist was snapping pictures, taking videos or buying these whimsical ornaments.




On a lesser note we were lucky enough to have eaten at one of the restaurants featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain - Banh Mi Vietnam video link. They are world renowned for their Banh Mi and they did not disappoint. Even with all of the fame that the show provided to this small sandwich shop, the prices remain low and the quality is excellent. We highly recommend this place when in Hoi An.


Anyone who is planning on heading to the beach while in Hoi An should know that due to a violent storm, Cua Dai beach has eroded significantly and continues to erode at an alarming rate. Large parts of the beach are now sandbagged and the water is very dangerous to swim in. Nice beach does remain in certain parts around Hoi An, but please ask around and make sure that you find the right spot before heading out.


And just for fun


Posted by BlondeandCurly 07:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples lanterns my son town bridge vietnam old ancient hoi an Comments (3)

Danang & the Hai Van Pass

The Hai Van Pass & Marble Mountain

There are a few different options when deciding how to travel from Hue to Danang: plane, train, bus, or motorcycle. The most stunning though, is driving the Hai Van Pass. This pass is quite famous and we were told specifically by some friends that we could not miss these views. We contemplated whether or not we should rent our own motorcycle and drive ourselves so we could get an incredible 360 degree view. However, if you’ve read any of our last blog entries you’ll understand how much we “LOVE” the traffic in Vietnam and how safe we feel on the roads ;), so we decided to hire our own driver and a car to summit the pass. We felt extremely happy with our decision when we started the incline on one of the most twisty, turny roads we have been on – on one side of the car was a cliff straight up the mountain and the other side, a cliff straight down to the ocean. With cars, motorcycles, trucks, cows, dogs, you name it, coming straight at you or darting out onto the already small 2-laned highway; we would have completely missed the views and scenery trying to dodge it all. So, while our driver had to worry about the oncoming traffic, we could sit back and relax (kind of) and enjoy the absolutely stunning views around us.




Once we summited the pass, we were surprised by what lay on top. Our driver informed us that this was an old military outpost. During the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the pass was an important military site which served as a protection for the Hue Royal Citadel. It also separates the north and south of Vietnam, and allows whoever controls it a very large field of view, which is why it also became a very strategic point for the US Military during the Vietnam War



Once we conquered the pass, we descended into the city of Danang. Danang surprised us greatly and though some people told us it was just a beach town that could be skipped over, we actually found some really cute treasures and some pretty neat attractions in and around the city. Our first stop was the Marble Mountains. It’s a group of 5 marble mountains named for the natural element it’s said to represent; Thuy Son (Water), Moc Son (Wood), Hoa Son (Fire), Kim Son (Metal or Gold) and Tho Son (Earth). Thuy Son is the only mountain open to the public which unfortunately made it very busy with tourists, but we were able to walk around freely and took in what we could.







Danang & Lady Buddha

After almost 2 weeks of straight sight-seeing adventures, we welcomed the beach with open arms. The first day, we literally did not leave the beach, which was a big feat for Sean! I’m usually the beach bum :) We had a few days of relaxation, listening to the waves crashing on the shore and soaking up the sun. To our surprise, the beach was fairly empty and we soon found out that it’s low season in Danang, which made our beach time that much better. On the morning of one of our beach days, we finally took the plunge and rented our own motorbike to head up one of the nearby mountains to see the Lady Buddha. Situated on a small hill on the mountain, the Lady Buddha is pure white and the tallest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam at about 220ft tall, overlooking Danang. It is so massive that you really just need to sit there for a few minutes to really take it all in.




At night, we explored the city a little more and found that it is super busy, filled with people and lights. The streets we walked on during the day suddenly filled with couples and families out for dinner or shopping, small circus areas that were creepily deserted in the day were now packed with kids playing and laughing. Even the bridges were covered with people taking pictures of the city and the famous fire breathing dragon bridge. The dragon bridge was our favourite, and a must see when in Danang.


As a suggestion from a friend, we sought out a little restaurant called Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop – the owner is this little Vietnamese lady, Tam, who was one of the translators for the American troops during the Vietnam War. She became friends with many of the soldiers, which in turn has allowed her to have an incredible amount of stories to tell with each wall in the restaurant telling some of those stories through pictures. As she learned to cook american food to help support the soldiers, She mastered the art of making her world famous bacon cheeseburgers, which are the BEST burgers we have ever had - EVER!!! So if you are ever in Danang please look her up and enjoy the stories. We are off to Hoi An now and the land of the eternal lanterns.


Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains beach lights bridge vietnam buddha dragon lady pass van neon marble danang hai Comments (3)

Up, Up and Hue!

Arriving in Hue (spoken like HWAY) from Hanoi was a wonderful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the capital city. There are still crazy drivers and honking motor bikes everywhere, but it is definitely more tranquil in comparison to Hanoi. Now that we have mastered our role as pedestrians in this motorized world and feel more comfortable wandering the streets, we decided to start exploring the city.

The main attraction in Hue is the Imperial Enclosure, which held the royal families from the Dynasty's that ruled for hundreds of years. Just like Ho Chi Minh's grounds in Hanoi, this citadel complex was massive. We're still astounded at how large these places are and after 5 hours of walking around, we only saw a fraction of what was offered! The outside of the citadel is surrounded by a large moat and a brick/cement wall that is 2m thick, 6m tall and 10km's long. The Flag Tower juts up from the centre of the wall, looming over the grounds with one of the largest Vietnamese flags we've seen. Once we crossed the moat, entered the citadel and passed through the walls, we found the Imperial Enclosure. More protective cement walls were now surrounding us, protecting all things important for the Dynasty's that once ruled.


We then passed through the Ngo Mon Gate, (which faces the Flag Tower) where each royal visitor would pass through to see the King. Once through the gate, you walk right into the Thai Hoa Palace, where the King would sit in his gold plated, elevated throne, waiting for those who entered. No photography was allowed inside, but it was truly ornate. When we finally made it through the Palace, we were greeted with the Enclosure grounds. Everything from temples, palaces and pagoda's, to beautiful and colourful gardens with golden dragon statues, shrines and urns of the deceased Dynasty rulers and the houses where they would reside. It was pretty awe inspiring to see the colours and intricate architecture that unfolded before us. Definitely worth the 5 hour wander!






The day after exploring the Imperial Enclosure, we headed to the DMZ (demilitarized zone). Both of us enjoy learning about war history and unfortunately the Vietnam war was a war that we really were in the dark about. Not knowing a lot about it, we thought this would be a great way to learn about it in an unbiased way. The DMZ was an area on either side of the Ben Hai River that was considered a "no man's land" during the war. From 1954-1975 it was supposed to act as a border between the North and South, however we found out that it eventually would have some of the worst bloodshed in the entire war - Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vay, etc. and ended up being one of the most militarized zones on the planet. The tour took us to the 17th parallel, the Rock Pile, a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the American base of Khe Sanh and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Although there was a lot of driving involved, this tour has been one of our favourites. We have also included some pictures from the war to give everyone an idea of what it looked like before.


I am not going to lie, if we were not on a tour, we would have driven right by this mountain on our way to the American base. However, its history is quite significant for the Americans. The mountain is 230m tall and was once a US Marine Corps lookout point as well as a base for long range artillery. The top of the mountain was most accessible by helicopter.


Dakrong Bridge

The current design of the Dakrong Bridge was built in 1975. Because this river crossing was a major artery for the north Vietnamese, and was considered the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Note: the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a concept, not a road. The trail was a vast network, spread across hundreds of miles of terrain extending far into the interior of Laos. According to our guide this network was a network of hundreds of kilometers of trails that brought supplies to the North Vietnamese troops, usually on the backs of porters or for the larger loads, strapped to the back of bicycles.


Khe Sanh American Combat Base

This was the site of the most famous seige of the American War where the north Vietnamese attacked the base from the peripheral mountains. The base was never overrun, but it ended up being one of the bloodiest battles entire War. The 75 day seige started on January 21, 1968 and according to our book, 500 American, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and large numbers of civilians died in and around this base. Our guide told us that it is now well documented that this battle was only a diversion to draw US attention away from major southern Vietnamese cities in preparation for the Tet Offensive (one of the largest military campaigns of the entire war) which began 1 week after this battle began.


The base prior to the attacks


The base after the attacks


Truong Son National Cemetary

Here lies the bodies of 10,000 North Vietnamese Soldiers who died during the War. Each tombstone has the inscription "Martyr".


If you made it this far, thanks for reading. We are on our way over the Hai Van Pass to Danang for some much needed beach time. Till next time.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 03:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged military vietnam pagoda war hue imperial dynasty citadel dmz vietcong Comments (2)

Hanoi - The Good, The Bad & The Exhaust

To all of you who know us well, you were well aware of our plans of visiting Australia and New Zealand this winter. However, as plans tend to do in life, they change. We ended up buying our first house together in July which as many of you know, can lead to many new and larger bills. In the end we decided that Asia would be much more affordable and that we would make it to Australia and New Zealand once we had more money. After much deliberation we made the informed decision to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. We embarked on this journey leaving Calgary in a -30 deep freeze and headed to Bangkok and its sweltering +30. After 2 days acclimatizing to the heat and time change we boarded a flight to Hanoi.


Oh Hanoi...the capital city of Vietnam and the capital city of the world for exhaust. Maybe not, but it sure felt like it! We arrived in Hanoi at the peak of rush hour (if there is such a thing here) and to only +14, which after Bangkok felt a little chilly. After an unsuccessful search for a cheap bus ride to our hotel in the Old Quarter, we opted for a taxi. Our first thought of Hanoi is that it's noisy, dirty, chaotic and the exhaust from the motor bikes and cars is actually quite suffocating. No wonder all the people here wear masks. The motorbikes were parked on the sidewalks, along with the street vendors, so we were forced to walk on the street and were honked at for being in the drivers way. Once we finally found a clear section, we would still have bikes coming at us even on the sidewalks. It honestly felt like a game of "frogger" :) which was an adventure to say the least!




There are a lot of sights to see and activities to do in and around Hanoi, so we tried to hit up what we could in 3 days. We stayed quite central in the Old Quarter, which to our dismay actually doesn't seem to be very old at all, probably from having to rebuild after the war. As we were still recovering from the jet lag, we were up pretty early the first day so we trekked the streets to Hoan Kiem Lake. To our surprise, the city shuts down the street around the lake on the weekend, allowing all the locals to run, dance or play badminton anywhere they can find room. It was lovely to see and a nice reprieve from the chaos. This beautiful lake houses a pagoda on an island at the north end and a temple on another island at the south end. Fortunately for us, we got to experience this without tons of traffic or tourists.





We then made our way to the "Hanoi Hilton", otherwise known as the Hoa Lo prison. This prison held many souls, mostly the Vietnamese trying to resist the French occupation but is probably most famous for imprisoning the American POW's during the Vietnam War. There isn't much of the original jail left, as 2 massive sky scrapers now surround the grounds, but the displays inside are quite thought provoking and well done. One of those displays focuses on American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo during the American War. One of those pilots was John McCain. His flight suit is displayed in the prison along with photographs of local Hanoi residents rescuing him from Truc Back lake in 1967. Quite a sobering place to visit.




We woke up bright and early again for day number 3 and decided to go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. This place is massive. It houses the Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's personal residence on stilts, botanical gardens, a pagoda and a massive military parade route. The line up to get in snaked around for blocks and blocks. This allowed me enough time to put Sean's socks on to cover up my legs because I forgot to bring long pants on this trip! Nearing the entrance, we finally were able to look up at this gigantic square cement building where all of the guards were dressed in pressed white uniforms and not a smile cracked. The line was single file, hands out of our pockets and no talking. All this for a 15 second saunter into a dimly lit room with Ho Chi Minh, preserved in a glass casket, hands crossed over his stomach and 4 more guards standing at attention at each corner of the casket. As we left the room, it was easy to see that this place was a refuge for many Vietnamese people and something important for their country.


After a few hours at the Mausoleum complex, we continued our excursion to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1070. This temple has all the markings of Chinese culture, and early Vietnamese architecture with many ponds and gardens, pagoda's, gongs and statues of Confucius. This temple was the place of Vietnam's first University and honors those who studied within its walls. Though there were a lot of people visiting the temple, it was easy to get lost in the moment; the setting sun bouncing off the dark red wood structures, golden Chinese characters and dragon sculptures protecting their offering pots filled with incense.




Now that we've seen Hanoi, we're on our way to Sapa and Halong Bay. We want to give a shout out to Paul and Hana from Adventure Indochina Travel in Hanoi. They treat you like family and provide frequent follow up and information while you are on your excursions. If you're ever in Hanoi, please look them up! They are incredibly helpful, friendly and made sure everything was perfect. We didn't have to lift a finger ;) Here is a link to their website: Indochina Adventure Travel


Posted by BlondeandCurly 01:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples church vietnam hanoi chi ho minh mausoleum Comments (3)

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