Good morning (from) Vietnam!
Happy Holidays everybody! It feels a bit strange to write that, as in this part of the world, Christmas is just another Tuesday. Strangely enough however, there is still enough of a Christmas presence to keep us in a festive mood. Here and there you can find Christmas trees covered in lights or decorations strung along the street. Some of the bigger shops blare the same couple Christmas songs over and over. Just like home, right? We're glad it's warm, but it feels weird to have a Christmas without snow.
Let it soap, let it soap, let it soap
In the days leading up to Christmas, we first traveled through Da Nang to Hoi An, a relatively small town known for the ancient city at its heart. Entering this area definitely feels like you've stepped back in time, with the old buildings, beautifully carved architecture, narrow streets, and vendors peddling goods on the streets. Sitting right on the river, it makes for a stunning view. The city is at its most impressive at night however when thousands of paper lanterns come to life, decorating the streets, shops, and the rowboats in the river.
Magnificent Hoi An
Spending a total of four days there, we got to recharge our batteries and enjoy things at a pace befitting a quiet riverside town. While in the town we checked out some of the old homes and temples and got to see a traditional Vietnamese dance performance. Other than just wandering the streets, the highlights here were both the day and night markets where we found ourselves trying many of the unique local dishes… And sweets!
We used Hoi An’s proximity to visit My Son, the name for a hindu site of worship of the Cham Empire from the 13th century. As we learned, the Cham people thrived in this area until they were conquered by the Vietnamese, but some of their relics still remain. Once a site of several temples, it was a spot the Cham would visit a few times a year to worship. This particular site largely withstood the test of time but some of it was unfortunately struck by bombs during the Vietnam War. We were able to see the buildings that were still intact and learn more about the history of this country.
My son at My Son
Fast forwarding back to present time, upon leaving Hoi An our next stop was a historical one as well. The city of Hue, only 60 or so miles from Hoi An, was until the late 1800s the site of imperial rule in Vietnam. Even though it is so close to Hoi An, the trip by train takes over 3 hours as it slowly snakes along a cliffside for most of the duration. It was well worth it for the amazing views you get to see of the coastline and jungle as the train meanders along the track!
Hai Van Pass - Vietnam has it all
We used our time in the former capital to learn even more about Vietnamese history and their culture. From roughly 1750 to the end of the 1800s, a total of thirteen different emperors called this area home. As a part of their culture, the Vietnamese worship people of great importance after those people have passed. Of those thirteen emperors, only ten of them are regarded in a favorable light and are worshipped to this day. The other three don't even have shrines set up and are all but forgotten!
Site of emperor worship
One of our highlights in Hue was the chance to visit the final resting places of three of the emperors. As morbid as that sounds, these imperial tombs are located in the countryside and often take up several acres of land, with lakes, temples, statues, carvings, houses, the tomb itself, and oh so much history. Luckily for us, even though Ethan doesn't understand yet the historical aspect, he loves exploring and it is always fun discovering new things with him.
Emperor Minh Mang tomb
Emperor Khai Ding tomb
Emperor Tu Duc tomb
We also took the time to check out the imperial palace while in Hue. While some of the main buildings are no longer there, the massive complex took us several hours to explore. It is still full of sites to worship the former emperors, and is choc full of history on this era of Vietnamese history.
Imperial Palace Gate
That evening, we headed to the train station for our 12 hour overnight train to Ninh Binh, in Northern Vietnam. We booked 3 of the 4 beds in a cabin, and were lucky to discover that we had it all to ourselves for the entire ride. The train and cabin were comparable to trains we've taken in Europe, and it was clean. I found the experience relaxing and fairly easy to sleep, but I am not sure Catherine fared so well. Ethan ended up on the floor more than once, but even that didn't wake him up.
Our cabin on the train
We chose to stop in Ninh Binh because of the natural beauty there. The area is full of rivers, rice paddies, and limestone mountains as far as the eye can see. We opted not to stay in the city but rather in the small village of Tam Coc, and we were glad we did. It put us right in the middle of the beautiful countryside.
Amazing Ninh Binh
While in the area, we rented some bicycles and used them to explore the countryside and the sites. Passing stunning scenery everywhere we looked, we rode to the largest pagoda in all of southeast Asia. Even though the religious significance is beyond us, it is a truly remarkable place with different Buddha statues and a 13 story stupa that had amazing views over the entire area.
Bai Dinh pagoda
Bai Dinh stupa
We also took a three hour boat trip down one of the rivers, which took us to three temples otherwise inaccessible by land and through several caves formed by the waters erosion over time. None of us had ever experienced anything like it, and it was truly an incredible experience.
Time to set sail!
Should we head towards the light? Our next stop takes us as far north as we're going to go, to Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi. Another large city like Ho Chi Minh, I wonder what crazy adventures we'll find there? Only one way to find out!