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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Moving south, to the great unknown

Being a native of Ohio and having spent most of my life there, going south has always appealed to me.  When I was in college, I recall coming home late from a closing shift at the Friendly's Restaurant in Fairfield and seeing a TV commercial for South Carolina tourism.  I was very intrigued and became determined to move in that direction.  Within 2 years, I had a job in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  That would be the first of a few stops for me in the Tarheel State.  Over the next 11 years I would call Raleigh, Asheboro and Charlotte home.  Since moving back to Cincinnati, Charleston South Carolina has become one of my favorite getaways.  There's just something about heading south that has an undeniable appeal.

I felt that familiar equatorial tug as we got on the train in Hanoi, on our way overnight to Hue.  It was our third overnight train in six days, and our berths were a little barren at first glance.  The overnight trains that we took to and from Sa Pa were warmly appointed with thick comforters and some cozy lighting and complimentary bottles of water.  Not so much on this one.

The train looked to be from sometime in the Eisenhower era so did the mattresses and pillows.  Dingy military-green paint that was scratched and faded gave the compartment a Cold War feel, as if we were refugees from behind the Iron Curtain.

One aspect of this trip that was an improvement over our previous overnight trains was the timing of our arrival at our destination.  On the way to Sa Pa and then again on the return to Hanoi, both trains got in before 6am.  That means they start to roust you around 4:30 or 5, then you get to the station, grab your bags and go to your hotel, feeling pretty much shredded for the day.  This train, however, was due to get to Hue at the more comfortable time of around 11am.  That produced the best night's sleep for all of us, and we got into the train station pretty well rested.

We used booking.com to reserve a hotel room in Hue, but it's a third party site, so I had no direct contact with the Waterland Hotel before our arrival.  The boat we stayed on overnight in Ha Long Bay had no internet connection, but prior to taking that trip, I sent the Waterland an email, asking if they had a car that could meet us at the train station.  That would keep us from having to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers and make sure we weren't getting ripped off.

Sure enough, as we worked our way out of the station, there was a man holding a sign with Bill Bangert on it.  That was a sight for tired eyes, and we were all smiles as we met Mr. Vu from the Waterland Hotel and he led us to a taxi, to which he provided an escort for the fifteen-minute drive to the hotel.

The transition from Northern Vietnam to the middle part of the country was fascinating to watch from the window of our train compartment.   Rice paddies, in the early stage of being planted in the north, were a brilliant green as we got further away from Hanoi.  Every now and then, burial crypts could be seen among the paddies which were being tended to by peasants, using implements that had tilled the fertile land for centuries.

One thing that didn't change much from Hanoi was the gray weather.  It was a bit warmer as we took a stroll toward the Perfume River, hoping to get to the ancient Imperial City complex.  Several boats were lined up along the shore of the river, all looking of equally questionable riverworthiness status. 

The woman operating the boat offered us a ride across the river for a dollar a piece, so we climbed on board and enjoyed the short cruise to the other side of the Perfume River. 
The Imperial City dates back more than 200 years to when Hue was the capitol of Viet Nam.  A walled-fortress, the property is bounded by a perimeter stretching over two and a half kilometers.  Many of the original buildings were damaged or destroyed by the Indochina War and more so by the war with the United States in a bombing campaign in 1968.  Still, it was fascinating to walk around the massive complex and look at the ornate and detailed architecture.
The complex also featured the chance to, wait for it:  ride an elephant!  Of course, why not, what could possibly go wrong??  With a variety of worst case scenarios cruising through my head, I gallantly ceded my spot on the three-person gondola/death trap on top of the massive killing machine with legs as big as my entire body to my wife and kids.
All the elephant seemed to care about was getting a big stalk of sugar cane and once he had that firmly grasped between his jaws, he paid no attention to the goofy tourists on his back as he gave them a ten minute stroll around some of the grounds.

Hue was a good transition point on the way to our next destination of Hoi An.  More than one person we had talked to along the said Hoi An was their favorite spot in Viet Nam.  The train heading south doesn't go to Hoi An, only Da Nang, which is about a half hour drive away.  Our hotel in Hue offered us a car and driver for $45 for the three and a half hour drive, so instead of going through the hassle of booking train tickets then figuring out how to get from the train station in Da Nang to our hotel in Hoi An, we hopped in the car with a driver who spoke virtually no English and hit the road.
As often happens on a drive from the northern part of a country to the south, the sun appeared for the first time in over a week.  The road hugged some mountains just north of Da Nang, and provided a sun-splashed view of the bay, which was the entry point for thousands of US troops during the war.
The drive through and past Da Nang was fascinating in part because just south of the city we saw several resorts and signs of more in the works.  There was also signs of some developments that got started and never completed, which made us feel right at home as we pictured the hulking gray steel skeleton hovering over I-71 in Kenwood. 

Among the resorts were two of the golf variety, one of which was a Greg Norman design.  The other was the work of Colin Montgomerie.



It was certainly tempting to take advantage of the beautiful weather and play what looked to be a very attractive course, but with the family in the car, we continued to our destination of Hoi An.  The city dates back centuries and many of the buildings, while filled with shops and restaurants, are very well preserved.

The slower pace of Hoi An, especially in the city's older section, was a welcome change from the frenetic scenes we saw in Hue and particularly in Hanoi.  Walking along the ancient streets without having to dodge speeding motorbikes and scooters gave us a chance to exhale.  Our hotel was happy to have us add three nights to our stay as we decided to make Hoi An our home for almost a week.

Pretty much everything about the town worked well for us.  We walked around each day, shopping or finding a place to grab a bite to eat.  As the sun sets the atmosphere rises along the river.  Lanterns add a relaxing ambiance along the water, with people strolling along and vendors selling food and trinkets.

Our first night, we happened upon the scene after the sun had set, so we came back late in the afternoon the following day.  That gave us the chance to see the scene slowly change from day to night, as the soft fading light threw long shadows on the streets as the lights of the lanterns slowly began to glow.

The city has a certain serenity about it, some of which is probably attributed to its ancient soul.  Whatever the reason, it certainly captured our hearts and souls as we enjoyed the best of what Viet Nam has to offer.

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