The historic city of Huế is a must-see destination and is usually included on most travelers’ itineraries. This small city is located on the Perfume River, 64 miles (102 km) north of Đà Nẵng, where it can be reached by train in roughly two and a half hours.
In 1802 the feudal lord Nguyễn Phúc Ánh consolidated power and unified Vietnam. Phúc Ánh, who would later take the title Emperor Gia Long, made Huế Vietnam’s capital. Known as the “Imperial City”, Huế would remain Vietnam’s center of politics, religion and culture until 1945.
Under the direction of Emperor Gia Long, thousands of workers began constructing the famous citadel of Huế in 1804. The term citadel refers to the six miles (10km) of high walls, ramparts and moats built as a fortress to protect the palaces within. At the center of the citadel is another series of walls surrounding an area known as the Forbidden Purple City. Like the Forbidden City in Beijing, this area would have been home to the Emperor, family and staff and strictly off limits to the common people.
Because of its proximity to the 17th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, Huế was of great strategic importance to the North Vietnamese and their allies.
On January 30, 1968 the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong launched the military operation which would be known as the Tet Offensive. Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year, had traditionally been a time when both sides put down their weapons and returned home to be with their families. For the South Vietnamese troops Tet 1968 was not an exception and most soldiers left the cities to return to the villages. The North Vietnamese seized this opportunity and simultaneously attacked major cities and bases throughout South Vietnam. Huế’s defenders were initially caught off guard, and the North Vietnamese easily overran the city. It would take over a month for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to turn the tide and secure Huế, marking this as one the most deadly battles of the War.
Today the citadel, the remains of the royal palaces, temples, tombs and various associated structures make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “The Complex of Huế Monuments”. Much of the site has been badly damaged and some parts are in ruins as a mostly as a result of war. Much of the fighting during the battle of Huế was fought in and around the citadel. However, restoration work has been completed on the major monuments so there is still plenty to see.
From Quảng Ngãi I continued heading north to another popular seaside city; Danang.
With a travel time of only two and a half hours this was an easy and inexpensive leg; the ticket was purchased at the train station the day before for around $6 USD. I had read on some travel forums that buying tickets at stations could be difficult as the sales people do not speak English. I didn’t find this to be true at all; first of all the railway staff certainly speak English well enough to complete a simple ticket sale. Secondly, there is usually an enormous sign next to the ticket window with the train schedule in Vietnamese and English; simply point at the train number on the sign. Compared to Sri Lanka train travel in Vietnam is a breeze!
Danang is well known for its beautiful beaches and boasts several popular sites such as Marble Mountain and the Museum of Cham Sculpture. However, Danang is probably mostly visited by travelers because of its close proximity to the city of Hội An.
Situated on the Thu Bồn River, 18 miles (29 km) south of Danang, Hội An is an extremely popular destination for Vietnamese as well as foreign visitors. The “Old Town” portion of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its long history as a trading port. This charming area, which consists of a mixture of Chinese shop houses and buildings from the French colonial period, has changed very little in the last 200 years. Although the Old Town area is very touristy, it is adjacent to a very authentic market area which caters more to locals than travelers. The people of Hội An are extremely friendly and more than happy to pose for photographs providing, in the case of street vendors, that you make a purchase. The town provides perfect backgrounds to create wonderful pictures and it is very common to see photographers working with their models along the river front.
In addition to the Old Town, there are a number of popular attractions in the surrounding area. Mỹ Sơn is the ruins of a number of temple complexes built by the Cham people between the fourth century B.C. and fourteenth century A.D. The Cham arrived in central Vietnam from Indonesia sometime in the third to fourth century B.C. The kingdom of Champa would eventually cover a large portion of present day Vietnam. They were contemporaries and rivals of the Khmer until 1203 when they were defeated in battle by King Jayavarman VII. The Kingdom of Champa was essentially annexed by the Khmer for the next 17 years. This UNESCO World Heritage site, is located 23 miles (37 km) from Hội An and can be reached by taxi or private car in about one hour. A number of operators run bus tours to Mỹ Sơn, and although I am not a fan of organized tourism, the price is just too good to pass up. A round-trip tour bus ticket to the site can be purchased for 150,000 VND, less than $7 USD
Until next time,
I started my Vietnamese train journey from the popular seaside city of Nah Trang. The destination was the city of Quảng Ngãi, 240 miles (386 km) to the north. It takes roughly 7 hours to do this particular leg, which I thought would be a good introduction to the country’s rail system. I purchased a “soft seat” ticket through one of the city’s many travel agencies. I forget the exact price but I do remember that the service charge was $3 USD. I could have taken a taxi to the railway station and purchased the ticket on my own; but after paying for the taxi, I probably would have only saved a dollar. “Soft seats” are exactly what the name implies, padded reclining seats in an air-conditioned car, which would be the equivalent of first class in other countries. On the other hand, “hard seats” are wooden benches in a car that is definitely third class. The journey was quite pleasant; the cars are modern and well maintained and I was very impressed that trains in Vietnam arrive and depart on time. There was plenty of food and beverages on board; the train’s staff sold drinks, snacks and light meals.
Quảng Ngãi is the only city I visited in Vietnam that was not filled with tourists. In fact, I very well may have been the only foreigner spending the night there. The hotel I stayed in catered to Vietnamese business people and the two restaurants located near the hotel only had menus in Vietnamese; ordering was accomplished by pointing at the food. This is not a town noted for handicrafts or a night market filled with souvenirs, and is certainly not on the main tourist path.
Besides breaking up the trip, I had chosen to stop in Quảng Ngãi to visit the Sơn Mỹ Memorial, located approximately nine miles (15 km) from the center of the city. Sơn Mỹ was the name of a village that had been subdivided into a number of hamlets; the most well-known are Mỹ Lai and Mỹ Khe. On March 16, 1968 soldiers from the U.S. Army killed 347 to 504 unarmed civilians which included women, children and the elderly. This incident would become known in America as the Mỹ Lai massacre while the Vietnamese refer to it as the Sơn Mỹ massacre. The army attempted to cover up the incident, but when it was leaked to the press in 1969 the American public was outraged.
The memorial consists of the original foundations from the victim’s homes, some graves and a museum. The impressions of combat boots and tiny feet can be seen in the concrete pathway between the relics of the former homes and the crude bomb shelters the villagers once cowered in. Sơn Mỹ is a depressing place to say the least.
My hotel had organized a taxi for the 20 minute trip to Sơn Mỹ. The driver waited for me as I toured the memorial, then we headed to the train station where I purchased a ticket for the following day. Following the train station I visited the Quảng Ngãi History Museum where I was the only visitor. After a quick stop for coffee, I had the driver drop me off in the center of town to have a look around. I had used the taxi all morning, perhaps four or five hours; the total fare was $8 USD.
Until next time,
My original plan was to travel north from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang by train and then on to Da Lat by bus. Unfortunately, in March of this year a barge struck and destroyed a span of a railway bridge in Dong Nai province. Built by the French more than a century ago, the Ghenh Bridge is scheduled to be replaced by July, but some have speculated that the completion date is overly optimistic. Until the bridge over the Dong Nai River is completed, railway service in southern Vietnam will effectively begin and end at Bien Hoa Railway station. Passengers who purchase tickets from Saigon station will make the 22 mile (35 km) trip to Bien Hoa by bus.
Although taking the bus to Bien Hoa is really only a minor inconvenience, I decided to take a break from trains and buses and flew to Da Lat. The former French hill station is very popular with Vietnamese for weekend getaways. Da Lat’s cool temperature and rolling hills are the perfect escape from Saigon’s heat and humidity. On weekdays discount flights can be booked on Jetstar or Vietjet for less than $25 USD.
Da Lat is also a popular backpacker’s destination, although most of the sights in the city are fairly underwhelming. Being a history buff, I enjoyed visiting the summer palace of Vietnam’s last emperor Boa Dai. Like the Reunification Palace in HCMC, the summer palace is another time capsule filled with relics of the 1950’s. The other highlight of my trip to Da Lat was the cable car ride to Thien Vien Truc Lam Monastery. The cable car ride takes roughly 25 minutes and costs a mere 50,000 VND, or just over $2 USD.
The four-hour bus trip between Da Lat and Nha Trang is well traveled by foreign visitors. The winding drive through the mountains is absolutely breathtaking. A number of companies make this trip daily for as little as $6 USD. Tickets can be purchased through guest houses and hotels in Da Lat. Travelers in Nha Trang can buy tickets from one of the many travel agencies in this tourism hub.
On many internet forums bus travel in Vietnam is often described as unsafe and is discouraged. I can see the merit in these arguments; roads are often narrow and the drivers tend to operate the buses in such a way that definitely appears to be unsafe.
I suppose you have to weigh the risks against the rewards. Some people suggest to only travel during daylight hours. That makes sense to me; you would miss all the beautiful scenery taking the night bus.
Nha Trang is a beach resort town which is especially popular with Russian families and couples. It also attracts its fair share of backpackers and other travelers as Nha Trang is a major stop on the railway line connecting HCMC and Hanoi. It is also considered to be Vietnam’s premier SCUBA diving center. Besides the beach the city has a number of interesting sites to see which include the Cham built Po Nagar temple and Long Song Pagoda.
Until next time,
With a population of over eight million inhabitants Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. The city was named Saigon by the French after they invaded and conquered Vietnam’s southern provinces in 1859. Following the Vietnam War the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of North Vietnam’s first president. The city is still referred to by many as Saigon, particularly district 1; the city’s tourism hub.
This large and modern city can be accessed by bus, train, and both international and domestic flights. With its large and modern airport (SGN), the city is on most travelers’ itineraries and is certainly worth visiting for a few days. The city has a number of historic buildings and museums, many of which are in easy walking distance from the Bến Thành market area where many budget hotels are located.
One of my favorite sites in the city is the iconic Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace. The current building’s construction was started by South Vietnam’s president Ngô Đình Diệm in 1962 after a failed coup attempt badly damaged the original French-built Palais Norodom. Independence Palace was designed by the highly acclaimed Vietnamese architect Ngô Viết Thụ, whose goal was to create a building which combined both Eastern and Western styles. Completed in 1966, the Palace would serve as the headquarters of South Vietnam’s presidents until the fall of Saigon on April 30 1975.
Renamed Reunification Palace shortly after the end of the war, it appears that the building and most of its furnishings have remained unchanged since it was occupied by South Vietnam’s last president. The building is a time capsule of sorts; its contents could fill a museum of 1960’s art and design. Relics from the war include a HU-1 helicopter, a gift to the former president from the US government and two Soviet-built tanks like the ones that crashed through the palace gates in 1975, effectively ending the war. The building’s basement is one of the most intriguing areas of the Palace. Constructed with thick concrete walls as a bomb-proof bunker, the “war room” contains many maps that the president and his generals once used to plan the battles against the North Vietnamese. Located throughout the bunker complex are massive amounts of American-made radio equipment which not only connected the president to the various battle fields but also to Washington D.C. Judging from the many offices and numerous telephones it’s likely that a very large staff must have been needed to run this operation.
One of the things I really like about Vietnam is the admission prices to enter museums and historical sites. An adult ticket to the Palace is 30,000 VND, roughly $1.30 at the current exchange rate. Vietnam is one of the most economical countries to visit in Southeast Asia and has plenty of things to do and see. Within the first few weeks of my visit to this extraordinary country I began planning my return trip.
Until next time,