Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Hue 2007’ Category

Hue to Hoi An, Friday, September 28th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

We spent the day travelling by bus to Hoi An – only a short distance, but we stopped at a number of interesting places en route…
First we travelled up and over the Hai Van Pass through spectacular scenery overlooking the South China Sea. At the very top of the mountain there’s a sort of plaza where we were assailed by street vendors determined to be our friends (and sell us souvenirs).
One young lady named Vuong attached herself to us so enthusiastically that after we had inspected the gun turrets, we gave in and allowed ourselves to be escorted to her stall – where I purchased some bracelets I shall never wear and some possibly genuine Vietnamese pearls and a shell necklace probably made of plastic. (Why else would our notoriously tough Australian customs have let me bring them back home, eh?)
From the pass we went to the Cham museum at Da Nang. Records of the Cham Kingdom begin in the 2nd century, and by the 9th century they ruled the central area of Vietnam and westward into Cambodia. They are now a minority group in Vietnam, but have quite a large population in Cambodia, where they are mostly Muslims. In their heyday, however, the Cham were Hindu, and their sculptures are fantastic. They’re mostly carved in sandstone, and are in remarkably good condition considering the humidity, which is breathtaking. At the museum shop I did my bit to support the restoration appeal by buying a jade bracelet and a book about Vietnam’s World Heritage sites.
Then it was on to China Beach, famous as an R & R base for American servicemen from nearby Da Nang during the war. It was a pretty beach and some of our group went swimming while the rest of us loafed at a local cafe. From there we went into the Marble Mountains where we climbed 500 steps to the top to enjoy a spectacular view. There was also a superb Buddhist temple complex with a truly beautiful one in Wedgewood blue – an amazing accomplishment to build these glorious buildings in such an inaccessible place, up so high. Here Tim got to pat a Happy Buddha, one which clearly shows why Western men are often given the nickname! There were caves there too, including one that the South Vietnamese had used as a hospital during the war, but once again I couldn’t risk going down the steps with my dodgy ankle so Tim went down on his own. Alas, the camera wouldn’t work in the dim light, so we don’t have any photos…From there we went on to visit a marble factory where they make most beautiful things but, mindful of the weight of our luggage, Tim just bought a small tortoise. Then it was back on the bus to the small town of Hoi An…
Much of the old part of Hoi An maintains features of Southeast Asian trading ports of the 15th-19th centuries, and so it was declared to be World Heritage by UNESCO in 1999. There are no cars allowed within its boundaries, so after checking in at the Hoi An Hotel we walked down to the Morning Glory Restaurant – for a lesson in Vietnamese cooking. We began by slicing white eggplants and moved on to learning the art of folding spring roll wrappers, much to general hilarity. We sampled a variety of Vietnamese herbs, all of which apparently will cure every digestive ailment known to man. While some of these herbs were familiar, others such as the anise basil and the wild watercress were new to us and will necessitate a trip to the Springvale markets at home if Tim is to replicate the authentic flavour of the cold spring rolls. After most of us had managed to construct a somewhat flimsy but tasty roll, they took pity on us and took over the cooking. We tucked into a splendid meal, cooked by experts. There was a lovely curry vegetable soup, and the fish and mango sauce was scrumptious. Tim was very impressed by Madame Vy – who is not yet 40 and owns four such restaurants and a hotel. A fine example of the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnam under ‘Đổi mới’ indeed.
After dinner, Long took us to a tailoring shop where most of the group settled down to some serious retail therapy, but we sloped off to the hotel where we had cocktails by the pool and I christened my new bathers. The room was like a sauna when we finally went to bed, but with the aircon on full blast it eventually cooled down and we got a sound night’s sleep after all.

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Temple Crawling, Thursday September 27th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 17, 2007

Morning is the best time to go for a walk in Vietnam, so before breakfast, we braved crossing the road and took a stroll across the Trang Tien Bridge which spans the Perfume (Huong Giang)River, so called because traders used it to ferry sandalwood downstream, and there were also beautiful scented tropical flora on its banks. There were shops of all sorts on the other side of the road, but we’d run out of courage by then and stuck to the riverside. We walked through a lovely park and discovered this dance class learning the cha-cha in one of the open spaces. One of the young ladies offered Tim a free lesson, but he gracefully declined…
 After breakfast we set off with the tour group for the Citadel and the Forbidden City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and its major tourist attraction is the remnants of its imperial city. Naturally, there were fortifications and gun emplacements to protect it, so at the entrance there are cannon – four on one side representing north, south, east and west, and five on the other representing the five elements: earth, air, water, fire and wood. Unfortunately, both the French and the Americans failed to be deterred by these fortifications…the French burned and looted the Imperial City in 1885, forcing Vietnam into becoming a protectorate of France, and thousands died during the Tet Offensive – which also wrecked most of the rest of the buildings. The Communists neglected it for quite some time after 1975, until they realised its tourist potential and in 1993 UNESCO declared the whole complex a heritage site and is gradually restoring it.
Once you walk in through the main gate, you can see why. It is extraordinarily beautiful, in a gently faded way. There’s a splendid moat, and a succession of lovely temples. In the Temple of Generations there are ten funerary tablets honouring the Imperial rulers, each one with a picture of the Emperor, and a couple of grey-green to-die-for porcelain vases and other ornaments. At the back behind the altar were two shrines, one for each of the Emperor’s parents. (We had to take our shoes off to go into this part of the complex, and it wasn’t easy to get them back on again in the heat!) Most things – columns, walls and the roof – were painted red and gold (for luck), and outside there is a courtyard for the supplicants, who had to line up in order of rank on a sort of grid, flanked on both sides by statues of an elephant, a horse and four impressive Confucian gents. One can only feel sympathy for any supplicant at the end of the queue on a busy day because it must have been sheer torture standing on this concrete courtyard in the humidity and heat!
From the gates to the temples,it was the intricate carvings and mosaics which took our breath away, and even with tourists crawling all over the complex there was an atmosphere of peace and serenity in the beautifully landscaped courtyards and gardens.

From the citadel and the Forbidden City, we went to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda which the emperor dedicated to a deity he had seen in a dream. She advised him where to build the citadel so that there would be peace in Vietnam, but she obviously didn’t foresee the dreadful warfare that took place at the citadel in the Tet Offensive in 1968. 30,000 civilians died when first the North Vietnamese Army took it, and then the Americans and the South Vietnamese military under Marshall Ky tried to get it back. Now there is nothing to show that there was ever warfare here but much of the complex was destroyed and although there are ambitions to restore it, it’s going to take a vast amount of money to do it. Given the sad history of this place, I suspect that the Americans – who have been extraordinarily generous with funds to support restorations in Europe, everywhere from Venice to the chateaux of the Loire Valley – will be less keen to help out with this project…
After the temple we took a ride on a so-called dragon boat which is just a flat bottomed boat with a couple of limp-looking dragons in the front of it and a vast quantity of stuff for sale on board, which was rather trying. Still, the scenery is beautiful and it was certainly nice to sit and rest, especially since it rained and there was a light breeze. Thick vegetation lines both sides of the river and here and there we could see pretty little Chinese style houses nestling amongst the trees. There were also junks carrying sand dredged from the river, which look charming too until you get up close and see how dingy they are and how hard the people are having to work in the heat. From there we clambered up a hill and back to the bus, and called in to see how incense and Chinese ‘coolie’ hats get made. We then headed back to the hotel to meet up again with Louise and family in the Panorama Bar, before dinner in a local restaurant. It was here that Tim first tried grilled duck with lime leaves, an item now added to his culinary repertoire at home – whether made with chicken or duck, it is truly delicious, with a unique flavour. Highly recommended!

Posted in Hue 2007, SE Asia, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Royal dinner, Hue, Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

Wednesday was mostly a travel day, spent flying to Hue. There was a short bus trip to our hotel, the Saigon Morin, a vast three-storey white painted place with wide staircases and a marble entry hall, rather Raffles-ish in style. We were met with a refreshing drink and an army of porters who then escorted us to our rooms. Two comfy beds adorned with rose petals, fresh fruit on a platter, and even a secretaire with what looked like ancient pieces of pottery. The aircon was very good, which was just as well because Hue was very hot and muggy compared to the north…
After freshening up, we went out to learn about the court rituals of Hue at a ‘Royal Dinner’. We were dressed up like courtiers in traditional robes and treated to ancient court music as played to the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. (The last emperor abdicated in 1945 to Ho Chi Minh because he collaborated with the French, but if he was fed like we were, I can quite understand why he was a bit reluctant to give up his privileges.)

Our first course was created in the shape of a phoenix: the head formed from little crispy noodle ‘spring rolls’ on toothpicks, placed in a choko forming the body of the bird, with the wings carved from carrots and cucumbers. There was also a peacock, with delicate pastry wings made from miniscule pieces of spring onion and carrot – almost too pretty to eat. This was followed by a prawn soup, and then sticky rice with prawn shavings, followed by our first experience at rolling up our own won-ton pancakes. First you take a piece of won-ton wrapper, place two kinds of banana and a star fruit on it, then a bit of chicken wrapped around a stalk of lemon grass, and then roll it up. (This is the hard part, because it tends to fall apart in the hands of a novice). Remove the lemon grass and dunk it in satay sauce. There was also chicken, and beef, both with their own dipping sauces, vegetables, herbs and rice, and dessert was colourful gelatine fruit shapes and a pomelo – a huge citrus fruit which tastes like a cross between a lemon and an orange. It was all very splendid, so perhaps there were some compensations in the life of a concubine!

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