Hue to Ninh Binh

Leaving Hoi An

Well I left for Hue from Hoi An around 2pm - the drive took us past the Marble mountains and china beach.. pretty much a non-event other then there being a lot of domestic tourists... and then the bus crawled it's way up the gorgeous Hoi van pass -
if I was to start a love affair with  Vietnam, this would be the place to initiate it.

At this point I should probably make a note about vehicles in vietnam ... the speed limit is generally 50 km/h (rumour has it it's 60km/h for bikes?) on the open road and 30km/h in the city limits.  Needless to say road trips can take longer then you would initially think!  But after having driven on the roads around here I hope they never change that limitation, because it would just be a death sentence for so many more drivers... it's hard enough at 30km/h and I've already had to duck through peoples car ports to avoid hitting cars and performing various other cunning slow-speed manouvers ;o)

The current statistics suggest that for the 80+ million population there is about 44 million registered bikes... remove the elderly and kids and you have a huuuge vehicle owning population (not to mention all the non-registered bikes out in the countryside).  And whats even better is that a number of the bikes are being "riced" up... I've seen spinners on the wheels, respray jobs and neon underlighting... though no one seems interested in squeezing additional performance out of those 110 cc engines.

Arriving at Hue

I got to Hue about 6pm.. and ended up going out to dinner at a french vietnamese restaurant and then drinks at the DMZ bar - which is a mix of locals and expats... met a couple of expat friends of Marks, Darra and Jim...Jim has the honour of being a 3rd place winner in the "Minsk olympics" of vietnam... basically making him an expert at drunk russian motorbike piloting, as far as I could tell.

In fact I think the club has a website ( for the curious... it seems to be the popular choice of vehicle if you want to tour through Vietnam.

I actually ended up getting a lift home on his "Minky"... they're a pretty funny old beast... smokey...heavy... gutless... a perfect example of russian 1950's engineering - and the expats can't seem to get enough of them in vietnam, it seems to offer them a bit of identity in a country which could no doubt do your head in after a few years - the fact that the vietnamese hate them because they're "old" and "uncool" only seems to reinforce the appeal - like most expats, they dont so much want to integrate (or can't, it's easier said then done).. as create a niche for themselves to inhabit.

The following day I went on a motorbike tour with crazy Mr Than, a martial arts master (of some vietnamese variant of karate?) who is also a keen photographer... I think he stopped to take more photos then we did... but it was a great morning of exploring Hue's back roads... even visited some chanting monks (and chanted with them... because it seemed the right thing to do) and a nunnery..  I have a soft spot for Buddhist nun's - they're always a little cheaky - and often get inducted from a very young age.. so other then the odd tourist to
giggle with, there lives can be quite sterile from an outsiders perspective - I can't imagine being 10 years old and seeing your entire life pre-planned for you... They cooked an awesome vegetarian meal for us as well... perhaps the best vegetarian meal I've ever had in fact... mmmmm

Some other stuff happened.. blah blah blah... then that evening I attempted to go see a motorbike stunt show... however I was a little too late, as they had already oversold the show and a small riot of a thousand or so people was starting up outside as
the security tried to pull the doors shut :) absoloute chaos, so it was worth the effort just to see that... but still a little dissapointing.. The reports from some attendees was that they played about an hours music (mostly vietnamese battle hymns.. heheh) and then had a michael jackson "impressionistic" act followed by half an hour or so of motorbike stunts... with half of them done on the little 110cc scooters, which must've been funny to see.

The following day I visited the Citadel... basically a walled in fort with an inner forbidden purple city (ah la Beijings "forbidden city") where the emperor lived... a huge amount of this site is completely obliterated by various conflicts (French, American and allies ..and of course the north vietnamese themselves who during the "good times" of communism took it upon themselves to burn all the ancient texts in the libraries here). 

None the less, it's a beautiful spot and well worth a look around .. especially if you haven't been to China (the further north we go, the more chinese influence I keep seeing).

The D.M.Z

After Hue we headed to Dong Ha and spent the night there so we could leave early to explore the DMZ that seperated north and south vietnam "back in the day"... while around the DMZ I visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the old and new bridges across the river that seperated north and south plus some other random nearby sights...very cool, then tunnels were inhabited by about 300 people and are situated near the coast.. I think they were formed around 1965/1966 during the height of war time... the deepest tunnels are about 23 metres below the surface, and alot of the network survived repeated carpet bombing from the U.S.  The text on the entry ticket reads:

"Visiting Vinh Moc today, you will feel as you lived back in the glorious time with the historical heroes who made these exploits"

heh... "keep living the dream" springs to mind.

Also visited the Phong Nha Cave(s) later in the afternoon... this is a boat trip for half an hour, followed by looking at some caves lit with red, green and blue flourescent lights... the best bit is the english guide they supply you for free.. who's obsessed with seeing things in the  deposits... of course, because he's asian they all happen to be either a dragon, water buffalo, elephant, tiger or turtle... but at times he seemed melancholoy if you didn't see it too (which was often) - I kept having flash backs to the "cave guy" in the League of gentleman series...
"child killed in cave tragedy, local man blamed..".. at any rate, it's probably not a reference many people will get... so, moving right along.

Had a good hot pot for dinner in Dong Hoi (squid, prawns, meat and fish...) that though expensive (about $6 NZ) .. was enough food to feed four people, though I had a good go at eating it all myself... That evening we jumped a night train (after stopping briefly at Bia Hoi, which had sadly "run dry"...Bia Hoi [beer hoy! sounds like a piratical drinkery nyarr] is locally brewed beer... about 120,000 dong for a 22 litre keg (about $8 US dollars)... I'm definitely keen to give it a lash - its what most expats hit if they're planning to drink alot.

The overnight train was surprisingly comfy... I'd heard that hard sleepers on this route weren't that shit hot (ie. no padding) .. but these 6 bunk cabins even had a door you could pull shut... we hit the "Lum Noi" (basically vietnamese vodka) .. which goes down
ok with a bit of Da/Nook Da (ice) and Soda Chang (soda water and fresh lime) and cranked out some rather tragic guns and roses to listen too.

Today I'm in "Ninh Binh" .. basically it's another 200,000 population viet town, like all the rest... I've wandered through the market this mornin' to have one of my last "fills" of open air butcheries... this afternoon I'm gonna jump a bicycle and have a cruise round the town.. apparently there's a quite good 24km ride around this area - though the clouds are lifiting so it's probably going to end up being bloody 38 or 40 degrees again.. bleh, tomorrow I'm off to Halong bay... which I'm looking forward too, boats are my preferred way to travel :)

Written on June 8, 2005