Having arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is called these days, the worst thing that can happen to a traveler and passionate photographer happened to me. All of my camera gear got stolen and with the equipment I also lost heaps of nice pictures I took along the way coming down from Hue. After a while, I began to come to terms with the material loss but the irrevocable loss of these pictures which I had put time and effort into still gave me a hard time. And it sometimes still does these days. Apart from the painful loss itself, another consequence of this incident is that I am also not able to cover my trip and all the adventures along the way as I would like to here on escapology. But since I still want to let you guys know where I went and give some advice about those places, I decided to write a two-part recap with the use of some creative commons images from Flickr. It is not how I like to cover things, especially using other peoples images, but there is no other way. I hope you will still like some of the things you will read below…
1| Motorbike trip from Hue to Danang and Hoi An
We arranged a motorbike at friendly Mr. Cu’s café in Hue who was extremely helpful. We got a great one way deal and our plan was to drive down do Danang, stay there for a couple of days, and then drive the last stretch down to famous Hoi An where we would drop off our motorbike. The first stretch is very interesting as you pass by all of the famous Hue tombs. The next stretch isn’t that scenic as you drive down the notorious highway 1 which is fairly new but heavily frequented by trucks and other vehicles. On top of that we were hit by heavy rain showers which made the driving even more difficult. Nothing which the typical and very stylish Vietnamese motorbike raincoats can’t deal with though. The main attraction on the way to Da Nang is the Hai Van Pass also named “Ocean Cloud Pass” which is considered one of the best coastal roads in the world. Crossing the Truong Son Range and allowing for some marvelous vistas of the South China Sea, the Hai Van Pass forms a boundary between the climates of Northern and Southern Vietnam. With its winding road and thick mists that rise up from the sea, riding the pass is not for the faint hearted. We were luck though, the weather had cleared up, the rain had stopped and we even got to watch the North-South railroad slowly traveling alongside the coast. It’s a beautiful ride by motorbike but it takes some time, so make sure to leave Hue early enough. If you don’t want to ride yourself, you can either arrange a motorbike driver who will drive you or take the regular bus. The bus however will NOT go across the Hai Van Pass but take the newly built tunnel which reduces travel time by about an hour. Alternatively the train ride along the coast might be a nice option as well.
2| Da Nang City
Da Nang is probably one of the most underrated cities in all of Vietnam. Most people skip it and go straight from Hue to Hoi An or just do a quick overnight stop in town. We spent two nights in Da Nang and even drove back for one evening from Hoi An. That being said, Da Nang is not the typical tourist destination. But exactly that makes it so special. It is very authentic and lively and one of Vietnam’s upcoming and booming metropolises. It features good café’s, some nice restaurants and very authentic street food joints. One of the best was on Nguyen Van Thoai street, on the left hand side right before the big roundabout. Every night the place was bustling with locals having the joint’s specialties: freshly grilled chicken wings and chicken legs accompanied by ice cold beer. No matter if it was a weekday or weekend, the place was blowing up. The locals loved it and so did we. Da Nang is great at night as it is fairly modern with its city light reflecting in the Song Han river. The highlights are Da Nang’s bridges. They are beautifully illuminated and make for some awesome night photography. Cau Rong bridge must be the craziest bridge I have seen in my life. It is constructed to resemble a Chinese dragon and it not only changes its color at night but also spits fire. I stayed for hours taking all kinds of pictures of this bridge. But yeah, I guess I have to go back to retake these shots.
After Ha Long Bay, Da Nang will also be the first time for most people traveling North to South to see the ocean and beaches again. This circumstance is also closely related to my personal highlight of Da Nang – Surfing Da Nang’s famous China Beach. Do you remember the epic scene in the movie “Apocalypse Now” when the helicopters fly over the Vietnamese coastline to the sound of “Ride of the Valkyries” and soldiers surfing the waves amid enemy fire? Danang and China Beach were the setting . I hooked up with German expat Gunnar who has a house at the coast, a little outside of Da Nang. He is super friendly, rents out boards for a fair a price and goes surfing every day. Gunnar agreed to take me along the next day and we went for a very early dawn patrol session. It was rough and choppy and the conditions sometimes reminded of the European North Sea. But nevertheless it was a cool experience to surf this spot and to see, that even there in Vietnam you can find people with a passion for surfing.
3| Hoi An
Only 30km, the drive from Da Nang to Hue is a short one. It is nice though, taking you along the coast and with the marble mountains of Da Nang as a worthwhile stop in between. The five marble mountains are located South of Da Nang and are all named after the five elements. All of the mountains have cave entrances and numerous tunnels. Huyen Khong cave is probably the most impressive with a Buddhist temple within the cave and beams of light shining through the weathered holes in the ceiling. It is also possible to climb one of the peaks which allows for a great view over the coastline up to Da Nang.
Arriving in Hoi An coming from Da Nang is a bit of a culture shock. Where Da Nang was authentic, local and had the flair of a booming and bustling city, Hoi An is a rather small and picturesque village with little shops lining the small lanes of its old town which itself is filled with tourists.
It’s been on the main tourist track for quite some time now and hence the town is explicitly set up to service tourists. You can order suits and dresses, you have a great choice of restaurant, café’s and bars and hotels ranging from guesthouses to 5 star resorts. That being said, Hoi An managed to still preserve its own unique charm. A bit low-key during day time, Hoi An explodes with colors once the sun has set. With its little lanes and well preserved historical buildings brightly illuminated, colorful Chinese paper lanterns hanging outside the shops, vendors selling floating lanterns and all of that being reflected in the calm waters of the Thu Bon River, the city has sort of magical appeal. For me though this initial impression became a bit artificial after the first night and we decided to rent a scooter and explore the area around Hoi An which is definitely worthwhile. And since we missed it so much, we even decided to return to Danang for an evening and pay a visit to our favorite street food joint and soak in the city’s atmosphere before heading further down South.
Last thoughts …
The motorbike trip from Hue all the way to Hoi An was, despite the initial downpours a great experience. Traveling by motorbike is and always will be my preferred mode of transportation. It gives you just so much more freedom and makes for the most memorable experiences along the way. And Vietnam is perfect to be explored by motorbike. My favorite place on this stretch was probably Danang since it was such a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect much and didn’t even intend to spend two nights in town. But I really liked its atmosphere, being rather local than touristy. I could have even stayed a bit longer and tried the surf a few more times. I am still sad when I think about the pictures I lost which I took there and during this stretch. But I guess this gives me yet another reason to return…