Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – my last trip included these three countries. This journey was quite hard to plan for me as the names of the cities and sites were impossible to remember. I’ve never struggled this much! Maybe I’m getting old or something, I don’t know.
Anyway, I’m going to cut this trip in four major parts: Central and Southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Northern Vietnam. Writing it all would be too much for one post and I think it could be helpful to write it all in chronological order, in case somebody would like to get inspired for their own itinerary.
Let’s start from the beginning: Hoi An, once a major trading post, today pretty much an open-air museum. Then we will travel through Hue, the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Siem Reap & Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Sapa and finish at the Halong Bay. Enjoy!
Evening 1 – Hoi An
After almost 24 hours of travelling we finally arrived in Hoi An, the town of thousands of lanterns. And when I say thousands, I actually mean it. There are lanterns everywhere – hanging across (almost?) every street, at restaurants, hotels and sold at the market. That’s why Hoi An at night is a total must-see. Of course, nobody takes them down during the day, but the town looks completely different.
We weren’t lucky enough to be there on the 14th day of the lunar month, but if you ever have the opportunity to be there – do it. Every month there is a lantern (surprise!) festival to celebrate the full moon. No scooter whatsoever enters the old town which is enlighted only by the lanterns. It’s the time of music, honouring the anscestors and gatherings, all in the romantic colourful light reflecting in the river.
If you can’t be there that night, don’t worry. We weren’t and still enjoyed the unique atmosphere of this place. We started by exploring the night market where you can find loads of souvenirs and some food. Even if you don’t really plan on buying anything, go – it’s fun to see what and how they sell. You can see as well how lanterns are made. Tip: if you like the wooden hair sticks, buy them. You won’t find them anywhere else… At least I haven’t and I regret it until today.
Then we went to the promenade along the river. With calm water on one side and buzzing bars and restaurants on the other, with lots of romantic colourful lights and a couple of scooters and illuminated rickshaws, street sellers of these weird toys that you shoot in the air and then they fall slowly down what should apparently entertain you… Hoi An at night is a great place to be and you can make anything out of it. Calm, romantic, crazy? Just pick what you like and let this little town amaze you.
Day 1 – Hoi An & My Son
On the next day, we woke up early to not have to rush. Before we went to the Old Town we purchased a ticket that granted us entry to five of the attractions.
We started with the Japanese Bridge. It is a symbol of Hoi An that was built over 400 years ago by the Japanese community to link their part of the town with the Chinese quarters. Although it’s only 18 meters long, it houses a temple (not an impressive one though) and some sculptures. As it’s a bridge, it looks best from a distance.
We continued going west, but it wasn’t really worth it. So, we came back and decided to enter the Tran Family Chapel. The garden around it is almost like a jungle, you can’t see too much of the building from afar.
A young woman welcomed us and took on a short tour. At first we were given some little snacks as she was talking hastily and, to be honest, I didn’t understand much. It was fun to make a wish and throw two yin-yang coins to see whether it will come true… And that was probably the best moment of our tour. It felt awkward as she was trying to sell us stuff at the back of the shrine and was disappointed that we didn’t buy anything.
And yes, my dream will come true.
After this rather odd tour we went to see the Fujian Assembly Hall – one of the main attractions of the town. It was built in the late 1600s as a place for the ethnic group from Fujian (China) to socialize; after some time it became a temple. It delights already with its ornate gate: pink bricks, green tiles and dragons on the roof and, surprise, some lampions made their way there, too. Bonsai trees, fountains and sculptures make the courtyard especially photogenic.
Inside of the temple you will find long spiral joss sticks hanging from the ceiling and filling the air with smoke. The main altar is dedicated to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea that takes care of sailors. There is also a place of worship of the goddess of fertility.
By the way, this assembly hall is in a nice shopping street. You can not only buy any kind of items there, but also order some clothes which will be made for you in few hours. There was also a tea shop in which we could try different types and tastes of tea. Anyway, just strolling and enjoying the view (lanterns!) is absolutely lovely, so try not to rush from one attraction to another.
We’ve visited the Tan Ky House as well. Once home of a Vietnamese merchant, it still displays the furniture and decoration of the late 17th century. Fun facts would be that there are no windows, just a patio in the middle and that tourists can’t go upstairs because the first floor is still inhabited… also the bed of the merchant. No idea how he slept on that.
The guides there didn’t seem too excited neither; the tea we got was good.
The last planned attraction for us was the Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall that is right next to the Japanese Bridge. What I loved most about it were the dragons… All of them. At the gate, in the fountains, on the roof, in the temple; everywhere. It’s relatively young though, as it was built in 1885.
As we were looking at the map, we found a statue of a guy with a Polish-sounding name in the middle of the city, so we had to see it and (of course) google it. Apparently, Kazimierz Kwiatkowski was an architect and a conservationist who saved Hoi An from destruction by recognizing it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an interesting experience to see a statue of one of your countrymen in the middle of a foreign land; even better when it’s accompanied by a rooster and a dragon.
Then we had some sea food at a restaurant overlooking the river. Thanks to Kwiatkowski and everything he has saved, being in Hoi An feels like travelling back in time. Wooden houses and boats, colourful lanterns, fishing nets set up on the river, tranquil water, women in characteristic conical hats selling fruit carried on their yokes… A perfectly romantic Asian fairy-tale town. This picture is every now and then disturbed by scooters passing by, though.
Filled with new energy, we went back to our hotel and got on a pre-arranged taxi that took us to My Son, the UNESCO-protected ruins that used to be the biggest religious centre of Champa*. It’s still one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia and it’s only around 40 km west from Hoi An.
You can’t park close to the temples, but there is a shuttle that will take you there. The ride itself is very pleasant, as the cool wind you will feel on your face will be the only wind you will experience in this valley. Enjoy it, My Son site is only 2 km away from the parking lot.
Although there were still more than 70 ruins at the end of the 19th century, most of them were destroyed during the Vietnam War; one of the most spectacular tower (A1) of the Asia of the time inclusive. Today, the last 20 buildings are divided in groups and ready to amaze you.
The site is calm and easy to walk – we chose the lane to the left and followed it until we came back to the same place. I think it’s the best way to see this complex, because like this you start with the least impressive Group K and continue to better preserved groups. This group wasn’t the most important back then either, as it “showed a simple architecture with a small-sized main sanctuary”.
As we were strolling and enjoying the shadow of the trees along the lane, we heard some music. We speeded up and climbed up the hill on which we found Group G, some dancers, musicians and of course tourists recording the spectacle.
Five women in long elegant robes were dancing gracefully to the rhythm of music, swinging huge colourful fans and the ends of a narrow material hanging from their shoulders. The one in the middle was wearing a red robe and a jar with flowers on her head. Most of the instruments were unrecognizable for me, making sounds that I haven’t heard before. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of the traditional Cham dances in front of some still impressive temple ruins with scary faces carved on its walls.
You can find the video here.
If you’re curious how this group looked like before, follow this link.
The centre for worshipping in My Son are the Group B – C – D temples. They were restored in the 1980s which is why they are in quite a good shape today. These groups are all together, made of red bricks and overgrown with grass and small plants. Here and there you can find carvings of deities and floral motives… or even a bomb crater. The whole place makes you wonder how stunning it used to be not only to us, but to the people of the time living much simpler life than we do.
After walking through the whole complex in the heat we were looking forward to resting in the car all the way to Hue, former capital of Vietnam.
Don’t leave Hoi An without trying:
- Banh bao – “white rose”, steamed manioc-flour parcels of crab or shrimp with a crunchy onion topping; very delicate, good for a starter;
- Cao Lau – soup with thick rice-flour noodles, pork and bean sprouts;
- Sea food (thanks, South China Sea!);
- We also had some wonderful chicken in lemon grass sauce, never tasted lemon grass like this before, absolutely stunning!
Champa* (2nd century – 1832, when absorbed by Vietnam) – “Kingdom(s) located on the central coast of Vietnam during the precolonial era, inhabited mainly by an ethnic group now called the Cham.”
Lockhart, B. M. & Duiker, W. J. (2006) Historical Dictionary of Vietnam. p. 65-66.