From Hoi An we took the ‘scenic’ coastal train journey to the Imperial City of Hue – as recommended by the marvellous Man in Seat 61 (an invaluable website if you ever want to travel by train almost anywhere there is a network).
At least, it would have been scenic if the train conductor had allowed us to open the curtains, but she was very clear that this would ‘let the sun in’. Even the Vietnamese customers looked baffled. In my more rebellious moments I peeked behind the curtains to view China Beach, where the American soldiers in Vietnam came for R&R and several other breathtaking coastal views.
The rest of the time we munched on our growing collection of not-very-tasty Vietnamese snacks. I admire Paul’s desire to sample all that is on offer at the Vietnamese convenience stores, but some has been much better than others. Notable failures include durian candy in pastry (durian is a fruit so smelly that most places have a sign up featuring a red circle and a durian fruit with a line through it), and a type of sweet that I can only conclude is made out of sesame seeds, sugar and PVA glue (keeps the children quiet for a while anyway).
Our next stop, Hue, used to be the capital of Vietnam, and is based on the charmingly named Perfume River. It’s a pleasant place. We stay at the Jade Hotel – at a cost of £17 a night for four, where the most notable thing is the fact that the loo roll has to wear a little smoking jacket in red velvet with a tassel. We continue our favourite SE Asia quest – the search for tonic water. Mum and Dad bought two bottles of gin out with them, but the tonic to go with them is hard to come by. Found some in the end, which was pleasing.
Hue was Vietnam’s imperial capital, so when we’re not swigging gin in the Jade Hotel’s retro bedrooms (sadly not wearing our own smoking jackets) we venture out to see the imperial palace, city walls and ‘forbidden purple city’ (based on the one in China). I wish I could come up with a more cultural view on Hue than ‘nice dragons’ – but I’m afraid that really is the best conclusion I can give you – think I must be pagoda’d out. Nice ice cream too – always a bonus when it’s quite so swelteringly hot.
We also took a boat trip on the Perfume River with Madeleine and Phil, which was interesting, but also hot. The river is studded with assorted mausoleums (great for hide and seek, it turns out), and we also had a very authentic chicken lunch (spot the head in the middle) on the boat itself. Madeleine and Phil were staying in a very nice hotel, with a pool, where Charlie Chaplin had been on his honeymoon. He had good taste, it was lovely (and we got to use the pool too for a fee).
Not sure Hue was the girl’s favourite place, but they did enjoy seeing their Grandmere, plus a fantastic authentic dinner with Binh, who runs the charity Phil set up for students in Vietnam, which took place in such a downpour that the lights went out.
From the river, to the sea. We took a cruise (get us) on Ha Long Bay, on a very plush boat called The Treasure Junk. Moving on from hotels where (toilet roll smoking jackets notwithstanding) the level of luxury was fairly ow, being upgraded to a suite was a bit of a shock. The girls got to grips with the somewhat over-fierce Jacuzzi, and soaked the floor, and we got to grips with gin and tonics on the private deck. It was proper posh.
Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area full of limestone karsts, with nearly two thousand islands in a small area. We went kayaking and swimming, with our improbably-named guide, Kevin, and did early morning T’ai Chi on the deck (without laughing too much).
We also visited a pearl farm where we learned how oysters have bits of pearldust inserted into their ovaries in the hope that they’ll create pearls around them. Ouch. I can’t claim this level of oyster abuse made me want to buy any pearls (though the girls were predictably keen) but it was really interesting.
Then came a whirlwind trip to Hanoi, staying at the fantastically-named Boss Legend Hotel – the girls will remember it only for a swimming pool full of coloured balls but we also enjoyed (and endured) Hanoi’s crazy motorcycles and buzzing street life. Not really enough time to do Vietnam’s capital, but just enough time to whet the appetite for more. Vietnam, we’ll be back.