Last week we went for a short trip to Vietnam, during the Lunar New Year. The Vietnamese call this the Tet Festival, and it is very much celebrated. We were warned that the country would basically shut down during those days, but that was not the case and we had a great time there!
Hue and Hoi An are located in the middle of Vietnam, close to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South where the heaviest fighting occurred during the Vietnam War in the last 60’s. Hue has been badly affected during several bloody battles, but Hoi An has escaped unharmed thanks to an agreement between both sides to save this remarkable city.
We started in Hue, where the main attractions lie outside the city – the tombs of the Nguyen emperors. We rented a car for a day, and kicked off with the Thien Mu Pagoda. This is a seven-tiered structure from 1844 has become the symbol of Vietnam, and exhibits the car that was used by Thich Quang Duc – the monk who set himself on fire in 1963 in Saigon to protest the government’s anti-Buddhist policies.
It’s a beautiful pagoda, and we liked the young monks with their shaven heads (except a tail at the front!) running around instead of studying…
The first tomb we visited was Tu Duc’s tomb, built in 1867 for the emperor for his life and death. He enjoyed himself is the majestic palace and serene gardens, together with his 104 wives. Somehow, his efforts didn’t pay off though, and he ended up adopting a son…! We liked this tomb a lot – it was the most impressive of all.
Next we visited the Tomb of Minh Mang, which has a beautiful central shrine on a hill surrounded by pine trees. Right in front are three bridges, and you can walk over any – even the central one who used to be reserved for the emperor only…
Back in Hue, we visited the Citadel, which used to be an impressive island within the city with imperial palaces. Unfortunately, after heavy American bombings only the surrounding wall and the gates remain intact. The central gate has a large flag post with a huge communist flag proudly flying in the wind – it’s clear who is still in charge here.
The next day we took a bus for a three-hour drive to Hoi An. This city completely exceeded our expectations – it is probably one of the friendliest and most well-preserved cities in Asia, and we truly enjoyed our stay here. The city was an important port for foreign trade, and was re-built in the late 1700’s after a revolution. Hoi An lost its port function in the late 19th century after the river silted up and became too shallow for boats. Now it’s focused on tourism, and thriving.
We arrived on the eve of Lunar New Year, and the city was getting ready for the Lantern Festival. This is an appropriate festival, as every third shop in Hoi An sells lanterns (every other third is a tailor, and the rest are nice bars and restaurants). During the festival, there was a lantern competition, people floated hundreds of candles on the river to celebrate the New Year, and they even made balloons out of lanterns – it was a magical moment to see hundreds of lanterns rising up in the night sky…
During the day, we made a leisurely walk around the city to see the many attractions, such as the assembly halls the different Chinese societies (Kantonese, Hainanese, Fujianese, …), the old houses, the temples and the musea. Normally you have to buy entry tickets for each, but because of Tet it was all for free. The Japanese built a beautiful covered bridge to connect their peninsula to the city, and it remains in good shape to this day.
The people were in a very good mood because of the Tet Festival – in every shop they offered us sweets, fruits and beer, even if we didn’t buy anything. Many people were sitting in front of their houses or closed shops, surrounded by their pets – there were many pets in Hoi An, and they were all in great shape.
We did loads of shopping (lanterns, bags, a tailored shirt for Diana, etc.), we enjoyed the great food with lots of vegetarian choices and incredibly good chocolate croissants, and generally had a very relaxed time.
If we go back anywhere for a second during our time in Asia, it will probably be Hoi An!
For more pictures, click here.