South East Asia

Vietnam Between Ho and the West: DaNang, Hoi An, Hue, Bach Ma

IMG_2020Uncle Ho surely would have turned in his grave at this decadent display of pink…

Having started my trip in Thailand and Cambodia, I flew from Siem Reap to DaNang, Vietnam. An important air base during the Vietnam war, the city holds a commanding place in the imagination of anyone who have studied the war. During the most dramatic stages of the conflict, it was the busiest airport in the world with about 2,500 sorties per day! It was also one of the most polluted.

And it still is. The dioxin levels (mostly from Agent Orange) are supposedly more than 300-400 times the level considered a threshold for environmental clean up by the UN. The trouble for this area is that the toxin is endemic. Whether you eat the fish or walk in the jungle, the toxin is invisibly there.

My first stop was Hoi An, a rather touristified spot one hour South of DaNang. Nice enough and I enjoyed the relaxation after a hectic Thailand/Cambodia component. After Hoi An, I headed up over the Hải Vân Pass to Hue, further North. Hue was the imperial city and a major flashpoint during the war. The most compelling part of the Vietnam trip was my excursion to Bach Ma national park.

Hoi An

Located on Vietnam’s central coast, the city has a wonderful a mix of cultural influences from Chinese shops to French colonial buildings, Vietnamese tube houses, and pagodas. I enjoyed my visit but the center district was a bit chic for me. Hoi An has become a major tourist magnet and you have to go to the outskirts of town to find anything authentic.

DSC00255A port city, it looks deceptively authentic. However, a stroll down most of the center districts reveals a distinctive Western flair, from gift shops to cafes and restaurants.

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There’s no denying that this is a beautiful city, especially at night when the lanterns are lit.

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I stayed in the beach area, enjoying a few dips in the South China sea and frequent visits to my favorite restaurant. Here the cook in the kitchen/bathroom. The waitress and wife complained bitterly about the cook, who is also her husband, and her mother-in-law who happened to live with the couple.

Hải Vân Pass

The mountain range that empties into the South China sea effectively splits Vietnam into North and South. The important 1A road transects the pass and so did I. On top there’s a beautiful view in all directions and a few odd gift shops.

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Imperial Hue

The site of a famous battle started during the Tet offensive in 1968; Hue saw fierce fighting including street to street battles and enormous destruction. It was also the beginning of the end of the war. The city was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty and the national capital up to 1945. Today, the biggest attraction is the 19th-century Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. Inside, the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home.

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Though you do see the occasional display of abandoned US military armor, the war seems entirely forgotten. I asked several people about their impressions of the war and every time it generated a dispassionate response. In fact, some of the young people hardly knew what the war was about, or at least, were completely disinterested. 

Bach Ma national park

Located in the mountain range that encompasses the Hai Van pass, the park was used and damaged during the war. You can still see areas, especially in lower elevations, where Agent Orange has left tracts of land barren, 40 years later. I had the whole 85 square miles to myself and was very taken by its natural beauty. You have to be on guard, though, as the mines and unexploded ordinance on display at the ranger station warns.

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DSC00301This is where my trip very nearly ended. Ignoring the warning signs and my better judgment, I got too close waterfall and slipped on the rocks, barely grabbing onto a branch as I was slipping towards the abyss. I may sound cavalier about it but if shook me up pretty badly. 

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I had to go off-trail at times but found what appeared to be a helicopter pad at the top of the mountain. 

Love to hear the stories of these tunnels.

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Categories: South East Asia, Vietnam

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