When most people backpack around Southeast Asia, their method of transportation often includes night-buses and trains. We’re not in our early 20’s, and we intentionally saved up in order to do this trip one teeny tiny notch above the norm, so we’ve pretty much been flying everywhere. (Just the other day in line for food at the local night market, a couple behind us was deciding when to embark on their 11-hour night bus to their next destination. We’re headed to the same spot next, and for us, it’s a 50-minute flight. I rest my case.) However, there are no flights available between Hoi An and Hue, because they’re too close to each other. So naturally, we had our hotel organize a private car for front door pick up and drop off service. #bougie
Though we both had Netflix movies and TV shows downloaded on our phones for occasions just like this, I found that this drive called for major window viewing. Just outside of Hoi An, we pass through Da Nang (where the airport is that we flew in to), a beach resort town, with miles upon miles of coastline boasting all sorts of resorts, boardwalks, restaurants and beach clubs. One minute it looks like you could be driving down Miami Beach (if you squint a little), the next looking like Atlantic City (on a good day; no rum ham to be found here!). We drove over a bridge whose two stanchions were giant, dueling dragons. Never-ending blocks of cafés, smoothie shops, bars and restaurants. Miles of massive soon-to-be resorts under construction. Even golf courses (I made a mental note to come back for you, BRG Da Nang Golf Resort).
About 45 minutes into the drive, we stopped at Marble Mountain. We’ve developed a habit of intentionally not looking too many things up ahead of time, so we could be surprised. It’s mostly worked out thus far. We bought our entrance tickets and took an elevator five stories up. Once we stepped out, we were met with sweeping views, buddhas, temples, and caves. Not what you’d normally expect when you drive through a small mountain range.
Next on our drive, it was recommended to be sure we went through the Hai Van Pass. Jagged curves on the edge of the cliff as we slowly amble along the mountainside. The entire ride uphill was enveloped in fog. It was funny to think that for most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime drive. But for us, it was reminiscent of being back in the Bay Area, driving around Mount Tam or through Big Sur. At one point through the fog in front of us, we saw different colors spewing into view, bouncing left and right. The bus in front of us was losing its customers’ luggage! Our driver stopped the car to join other motor-bike riders to collect the luggage and move it safely to the side of the road, while other drivers sped up to flag down the bus, letting them know they were losing their contents. I couldn’t help but feel that back in the States, people would simply shrug to themselves, thinking Oof, that sucks, yet offer no actual help. Also like being back home in San Francisco, all of a sudden we cleared out of the fog and could take in the sunny views of the windy roads ahead and the beaches down below. We decided to skip the beach and the lagoon and instead drive straight through to Hue.
Checking in to Hue Serene Palace Hotel (which I’d totally recommend), the receptionist sat down with us to run through a map of the area (we’re staying in the heart of weekend walking streets, and tons of food and bars. I should be a location scout…), and a list of sites to see and optional tours while we’re in town. When Isabel confirmed that we would be here for four nights, her response basically translated into “Four nights? That’s way too long, there isn’t that much to do in Hue – you can see everything and really take your time.” Oh don’t you worry, we saw right through her shtick, not falling for her sales tactic, this ain’t our first time around the block … Um, we also booked more tours in Hue than we have in the whole trip thus far. Including:
- Day 1: A private boat along the Perfume (Huong) River, with stops at Thien Mu Pagoda and the Citadel!
- Day 2: A guided bus tour to the DMZ (no, not Korea, Vietnam has it too)!
- Day 3: A guided bus tour to Bach Ma National Park!
The next morning, a taxi picked us up and drove us the 0.6 miles to the dock. We very unnecessarily had a boat to ourselves, run by a couple that spoke no English. That didn’t stop the wife from handing us a piece of paper that low key translated to “We also happen to sell these things on this side table … Buy something if you ever want to get off this boat.” I may be exaggerating a tad – but Isabel grabbed a couple of overpriced postcards, and we appeased our hosts who left us alone to enjoy the ride in their boat.
Thien Mu (Heavenly Lady) Pagoda is a historic temple, whose iconic seven-story pagoda is basically the unofficial symbol of Hue, which used to be the capital of Vietnam from 1802 – 1945 (followed by Saigon, and now currently, Hanoi). Our boat pulled up to the “dock” and we walked up the steps. The main pagoda itself, which is all you can see from the water view, is truly a sight to behold. The grounds behind it are large and beautiful as well, and still to this day host many monks.
There was a crowd gathering around a blue car roped off to the side, whose modern presence I found to be oddly out of place. Isabel, on the other hand, actually read the placard and excitedly told me what all the fuss was about: This was the car that the Superior monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon in 1963, before committing self-immolation in protest over the South Vietnamese government’s treatment towards Buddhists. “Mark, do you know what self-immolation means?” No. “He set himself on fire.” Oh … Okay … I won’t include a link here, but if you google his name, you’ll come across the world-famous photograph of his sacrificial protest. Ah yes, that guy.
The final stop on our boat trip dropped us off at the Imperial City, aka the Citadel (also a UNESCO World Heritage site – that’s for you, Isabel). Actually, the boat pulled up into an endless patch of grass that we couldn’t see over. I maybe thought they were dropping us off in the middle of nowhere, but as we climbed up the hill to a sidewalk, there it was. Surrounded by high stone walls and a moat, the Imperial City was built by the king in the early 1800s, and used by following kings up until 1945 (you may also recall that year as it was Hue’s last as the capital of Vietnam, nicely done!).
Much different than the Imperial Palace in Bangkok, Thailand – which was packed with lavish and gaudy gold structures, tombs, statues and shrines – while the Purple Forbidden City (it has many names) also has large buildings and rooms fit for a king, it also boasted sweeping grounds of beautiful nature. Isabel agreed this was much more her speed; open spaces and no people. Seemingly endless halls, footbridges over the meandering river, and smaller buddha shrines tucked behind the gardens, it was a delight to stroll the grounds (reminiscent of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, although not quite as vast nor lavish).
The next day was our guided bus tour to the DMZ. 7am – 6pm, it was a lot of time spent sitting on a crowded bus. By no means necessary, but if it really interests you, or you have an abundance of time on your hands, then sure, go for it. Otherwise, feel free to skip this one. We learned that for a decade, Americans dropped a bajillion tons of bombs on the Vietnamese people, and how Agent Orange continues to maim future generations of children. We saw some old planes (shot down, from the American War), learned about the Ho Chi Minh trails (which were bombed, from the American War), walked through underground Vinh Moc Tunnel villages (necessary to shield hundreds of families, during the American War), and visited cemeteries of mass graves (of all the Vietnamese who died, during the American War). Sensing a pattern here? You can skip this one if you ever find yourself in Hue, and aren’t a fan of sitting on a bus for 8 hours.
I would be remiss if I did not include what was perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the day’s journey. About an hour and a half into the drive to the DMZ area, we picked up our tour guide who hopped on with a big smile and asked in broken-English how everyone’s morning has been. “Terrible,” said a cockney English accent sitting directly behind me. “Not a happy man! I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life. I want off this lousy bus, get me a taxi back to Hue!” Even if English was your first language this would still make for an off-putting next ten minutes. But between her highly commendable yet not all-encompassing grasp of the English language, and his being an unwavering asshole with a nearly impossible-to-decipher accent, you can imagine how uncomfortable it was for EVERYONE on that bus, the longer it went on. What was he expecting for a $25 group bus tour?
Before moving on to Act III, it’s now time for: Photos! Of! Food!
We’ve been eating very well all through Vietnam, and Hue was no different. As it was the capital and home to the King for nearly 150 years, a lot of quality cuisine was born here. Our hotel was in the heart of a bunch of restaurants and bars, and we enjoyed strolling the streets at night plotting our next meal. Or snack. Or ice cream stop.
Now on to the grand finalé of our time in Hue: Bach Ma National Park. All we knew about it was that we booked a guided group bus tour, and that it would be roughly a 9-hour trip. The night before we decided to do a little bit of homework to see what we were getting ourselves into and discovered:
- Bach Ma National Park is a jungle, experiencing four seasons in a day.
- The tour is a group hike, about 8 – 12 km long (5 – 7 miles).
- A warm picnic lunch will be provided.
- There will be leeches.
Isabel loved that last one. It didn’t keep her up late at night going down an internet rabbit hole reading all about leeches and what they do to your body, or anything. A far cry from the previous day’s journey, where we were the young whippersnappers of the group, almost everyone on today’s journey seemed to be in their early 20’s. Upon arrival at Bach Ma, the driver ascended the windy, curved road up the mountain. The drive and the view reminded us of home, like if Mount Tam or Big Sur had a touch of Jurassic Park to it. We got out at the top, and began our trek. As much as my head was on a swivel taking in our surroundings (we’re in the middle of the jungle!), I also had to keep my head down, constantly planning my next step. The stone pathway was cool, but definitely slowed me down (thank you, random gout flare-ups).
They prepared a hot picnic lunch for us, which we enjoyed sitting under a small waterfall. We continued our journey hopping on rocks in the water, some people choosing to swing from ropes to cross small streams. It was a legit hike, and walking along stone bridges with only a rope “handrail” on one side and nothing but a steep drop on the other side, definitely got the heart pounding. It was a tough trek, but we were so happy we did it. We went into it thinking we would just catch a glimpse of a pretty forest, but we ended up trekking through a legit jungle, using ropes to repel down small trails and to cross streams.
Advisory in U.S.: Do not participate in this activity if you are pregnant, have neck or back problems, if you have heart problems, if you have foot issues, if you can’t walk long distances, if you can’t carry a weighted backpack, if you have vision problems…
Advisory in Vietnam: You pay for tour now, okay?
By far the coolest part of Hue, our day in Bach Ma was quite the adventure. As Isabel pointed out to me, in less than three weeks in Vietnam, we’ve been to modern cities, ancient town, beautiful bays, beaches and jungles. Seems the only thing left would be a mountain resort town (wink, wink)!