Let's pick up right where we left off at Đồng Hới train station. We were en route to Huế, riding aboard Vietnam Railways train SE7 - no sleeper car required for this 4-hour leg. Coach cars on SE7 sat 4 people a row on 2-person benches, benches facing each other across small tables. The train was crowded, so much so that a few folks with no seat assignments laid mats down under the tables to sit cross-legged and cramped.
We arrived in Huế around 8pm and cabbed to our homestay in the well-heeled Vỹ Dạ neighborhood along the Như Ý river, which flows into the Perfume river (sông Hương) and provided some beautiful night time vistas. Our hosts were a young couple, Quy and Vy, and their 5-year old daughter and a friendly pup, who lived in a giant, old 4-floor home. We had the top floor to ourselves, and plenty of space to unwind. Quy and Vy also prepared delicious breakfast bánh mì sandwiches and fresh fruit for us each morning.
We had previously known Huế only as the location of fierce fighting during Vietnam’s 20th century wars, and the setting for the climactic scenes of the film Full Metal Jacket. But we learned that Huế is also a former capital city of Vietnam, having had that distinction from 1802, when the Nguyễn army reunited Vietnam roughly along the lines of today’s modern borders, to 1945, when partition was taking shape after World War II. The country was a royal monarchy during those years, so Huế was the seat of the emperor and royal palace. The palace still stands alongside the Perfume river, and is visible from many places in the city. We rented a motorbike for the day so we could easily explore sites like the Đông Ba market - and also to widen our options for bún bò Huế, which was really our main business in town - see article. We can also recommend Hanh for local dishes such as bánh khoai mì.
We had continually heard from other travelers that the stretch of ground between Huế and Hội An was so beautiful as to merit a motorbike instead of the train, so we obliged. Motorvina provides a convenient motorbike rental service, so that tourists can take the bikes from Point A to Point B anywhere across Vietnam, and transport their luggage separately. We rented a Yamaha Nouvo in Huế, and returned it in Hội An 2 days later. Could not have been easier !
After filling the tank with petrol, we set off on the road just after 10am. Our first stop came 2 hours later at Elephant spring (suối voi in Vietnamese). In Bạch Mã National Park in the foothills of the Annamite mountains, a tributary of the Bu Lu river has been turned into a makeshift water amusement park, complete with natural water slides (aka large rocks) and bamboo cabanas. Elephant Spring is a popular destination for locals to spend the day picnicking with friends and family, and for travelers plying the same route as us to have a break. We could have happily wasted the day there, but we were due in Hội An that evening, and our mouths were watering for the local seafood at Bé Thân BBQ restaurant, where we devoured about 40 grilled fresh prawns alongside the Lập An bay.
From lunch, we continued along the coastal highway for another 30 minutes before reaching the Hải Vân pass, a single lane road that snakes up a mountain to look out at Đà Nẵng bay, before twisting down an equally forbidding road towards Đà Nẵng city. Đà Nẵng is Vietnam’s 3rd largest city, with a skyline to match Hà Nội’s or Sài Gòn’s. Driving along the seemingly never-ending beaches, we lost count of the luxury condo developments under construction, and being peddled to Chinese occupants and investors. From Đà Nẵng, it’s just 45 minutes to Hội An, and we arrived before sunset.
Hội An is a very old trading port city, set on the Thu Bồn river. For years it was one of the main trading hubs along the coasts of Southeast Asia. The city was originally settled by the Cham people, whose kingdom occupied this part of Vietnam until the Nguyễn emperors brought it under Vietnamese control in the 1800s. From the 1500s, traders from around maritime East Asia, then later Europe, set up trading posts. The legacy of this history is found easily in the “old city”, a 10 square block area of wooden rowhouses and brick markets in a style influenced by indigenous and foreign cultures. The Japanese bridge and the Chợ Hội An (market) are 2 highlights. The city is still surrounded by the rice paddies in every direction, but the traders have since been replaced by artists and other creative types, as well as a bustling tourism economy. Relics of the city’s trading history remain in the custom tailored suit shops, and newer outfits dealing textiles like the Yaly shop. This reorientation has also led Hội An to develop one of the finest culinary scenes in Vietnam. The best bánh mì sandwich that we found in Vietnam was at Bánh mì Phượng. We can also recommend Enjoy Restaurant if you are craving burgers and ice cream, Hội An roastery for a caffeine jolt, and Soul Kitchen on the beautiful An Bang beach 20 minutes from Hội An.
We would pick up the reunification express again at Tam Kỳ train station. While waiting, we met two gentlemen - one a retired English teacher in Sài Gòn, the other a local businessman - who were eager to hear about our travels, and share about their own experiences. They were both from Tam Kỳ in the South part of the country, and related to us the changes they observed in their hometown and in Sài Gòn since the end of the war in 1975. They grumbled about the large migration of people from the North, to the commercial capital of Vietnam in Sài Gòn, and the attendant tensions that created. There is no doubt that identities of North and South diverged in the 20+ years of partition before 1975. But the divisions are older and deeper than that, for the borders that separate North and South are not only political boundaries. From Tam Kỳ, the train hugged the coast for a while as we traveled South. But when we turned sharply West, South of Cam Ranh bay, physical barriers became apparent too, as we tunneled beneath the Annamite range en route to Cochinchina. The Nguyễn rulers, then French colonizers organized Vietnam by 3 separate regions, governed with a degree of autonomy from the others. Sài Gòn was the Capital and commercial center of this Cochinchina “state”.
After a pleasant sleep, we arrived to Ga Sài Gòn around 7am and cabbed straight for our hotel in District 1. We’d have to wait for 2pm to check in, so we relaxed for a while in the nearby Café-Restaurant. Sài Gòn is well known for it’s cuisine, international as well as Vietnamese. First, we found Southern style phở at Phở Cao Vân (see article). That night, we embarked on a bar crawl, and the highlight had to be the delicious craft beer being poured at Pasteur Street brewing Co. The next day for lunch we found 4P’s pizza, started by a chef from Japan, and right at home in Sài Gòn's little Tokyo neighborhood. 4P’s keeps the aptly named Heart of Darkness craft beer on tap, and we tried several delicious varieties.
Speaking of Heart of Darkness... The Sài Gòn river rises in the mountains to the East, then flows through Sài Gòn before it becomes a vast delta that abuts Cochinchina's larger, and more famous delta - that of the Mekong river. Along with the Red River, the Irawaddy and Salween rivers of Myanmar, and the Chao Praya river of Thailand, the Mekong River is one of the 5 major river systems of mainland Southeast Asia, which is generally considered to be bounded geographically by the Arakan mountains to the West and the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau to the North. The Mekong river starts in China, then passes through and connects the inhabitants of 5 more countries, before empyting into the South China Sea. The Mekong River, of course, provides the setting for the memorable film Apocalypse Now, itself adapted from Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Like the men searching for Kurtz, we would also follow the river’s course to Phnom Penh [ភ្នំពេញ] where the river’s delta begins. We easily found one of the many shuttles that makes this route between the cities, and the border crossing at Mộc Bài/ Bavet was easy. Out were the recognizable characters of quốc ngữ, in was the indecipherable Khmer script called Aksaaro Khmer [អក្សរខ្មែរ]. We traded our Vietnam dong for Cambodian riel and were on our way.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, sits astride the Mekong river. The Sap river, aka Tonle Sap [ទន្លេសាប], flows in to the Mekong river during the dry season, and out from the Mekong river during the wet season. We spent our short time in Phnom Penh admiring the views afforded alongside the river, and the beautiful royal palaces adjacent. We stayed in the Tea House, a steal at the $25/night price. From Phnom Penh, we joined the well-worn backpacker trail to Siem Riep [ក្រុងសៀមរាប], seat of the Ancient Khmer Empire and home to the giant monuments they built in their city called Angkor, including the most famous, Angkor Wat. We hired a tuk tuk for the day to make sure we caught as much as possible. At Angkor Wat, we crossed paths with the crew of the upcoming Netflix original series “Jack Whitehall: Travels with my Father”. Perhaps we'll pitch an idea for the show "Hatabaga" and score a pilot.
In Siem Riep, we stayed with a local family. Our hosts Vuthy and Sokbo built their house last year on a vacant plot of land they had just acquired, west of the bustling town center. The government had very recently made the land available for development, and were advertising parcels all over town. The neighborhood roads had not been paved yet, but residents had received promises it would be this year. Vuthy and Sokbo have 2 daughters, and live with Vuthy's parents. Their house is surrounded by palms and mango trees. We had a large room with a great view, and the home cooked meals were delicious. Expecting to use a spoon at dinner, and surprised to find chopsticks on offer, I inquired and learned that our host Sokbo is of Chinese ancestry - that explains the chopsticks. Cambodia, like every country in the region, has an old and large Chinese minority population. We would encounter these communities everywhere we traveled across the region, their presence always enriching the local culture.
We would have loved to spend more time in Cambodia, see more of the countryside, meet more people, and learn more about Khmer culture and history. But with limited time, and the beaches of Thailand beckoning, we again boarded a bus for the 6 hour journey to Bangkok !