Since the past decade, Vietnam has become a popular tourist destination for Singaporeans as well as internationally as its tourism facilities , amenities and services have improved significantly to meet international standards. Most tourists will go to Ho Chi Minh City and its capital Hanoi and their surrounding areas but for those with more time to spare, this historic and scenic country has a lot more to offer beyond these two famed cities. For those of you who are interested in Vietnamese history and heritage especially, a trip to central Vietnam is likely to be an enriching experience. Within a relatively short distance from each other there are three World Heritage sites: Hue, Hoi An and My Son, awaiting your discovery and exploration. My wife and I were there some time ago, savouring the famous sights and historic monuments that these delightful cultural gems have to offer and appreciating why they are so highly rated by discerning international travellers.
The ancient city of Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). It suffered considerable destruction of its prominent landmarks during the Vietnam war, which lasted from 1954 to 1975 and thereafter the country became unified once again under the communist regime of North Vietnam. Fortunately for posterity, many historic temples, pagodas and old buildings have survived these human ravages to enable one to enjoy what is left of the considerable allure of this enchanting city. Its foremost landmarks are the massive Citadel and the Forbidden City palace complex within this protective military fortress. They provide an interesting contrast in architectures. While the Citadel is colonial French in design, the Forbidden City was erected in the style of its older namesake in Beijing.
In the palace grounds are numerous sumptuous official buildings, temples, ancestral shrines, royal residences, landscaped gardens and ornamental ponds, all enclosed in three concentric walled cities with imposing gates and watch towers.Sadly, most of these admirable structures were either flattened or severely damaged by the fearsome American fire power during the Vietnam War. The communist Vietcong army captured Hue and held it for 25 days but were finally driven out by the American troops with their superior weapons, after a last-ditch battle fought at the Citadel and Forbidden City. Miraculously, a few palace edifices escaped the bombing unscathed. Some of the damaged ones have since been, or are being, restored with funds provided by UNESCO, friendly countries and the Vietnamese Government. We next visited the Tu Duc Tomb, the most significant mausoleum complex of the Ngyuen monarchs. It was both a summer palace and burial place of this long-reigning ruler. I was awestruck by its refined grandeur, serenity and perfect natural surroundings.
A leisurely boat trip down the serene Perfume River, with clear views of the old city and other important buildings along both its banks, rounded up our short but memorable stay in this fair city.
Besides these heritage relics and scenic beauty, Hue is also the home of the famous Vietnamese blue and white ceramic ware, whose products date back to the 14th century and they are much sought after by both Vietnamese and international collectors. Since the 1990s some of the country’s artists have established a reputation for themselves internationally and their works are now fetching high prices both at home and overseas and actively collected. An excellent assortment of these can be seen at the local museum and we spent a couple of hours viewing these and other Vietnamese exhibits on display there.
Hoi An is truly a quintessential 18th century town and was unaffected by the fury of the Vietnam War. It has many well-preserved Chinese-style houses,clan associations, shops, temples, pagodas, quaint bridges and interesting museums. These old buildings blend in harmoniously with an eclectic mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European elements in their varied architectural styles. As a busy ancient trading port, it attracted Chinese, Japanese and Europeans traders to venture there from the 16th century onwards. Many Chinese and Japanese subsequently settled there and their communities grew. While the Japanese had long since departed, the Chinese stayed on and integrated themselves into the larger community. Among the old town’s hundreds of old buildings are grand dwelling houses of its rich merchants, an eclectic collection of shop houses, Chinese clan associations and other historic structures to lure tourists there.
Hoi An’s most famous landmark is the 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built to facilitate trade and communication between residents on both sides of the river. It is now the town’s official emblem and a must-see attraction. It has a Buddhist shrine in the centre of the bridge and seamen of the bygone eras would give thanks to the deity installed in it for their safe arrival in Hoi An. We thoroughly enjoyed strolling along its cobbled streets and exploring its numerous atmospheric narrow lanes and alley ways. We were warmly invited by some residents to visit their centuries-old dwellings. We felt like being transported back in time and relishing the cosmopolitan ambience of this bustling old town. Many of these buildings have been converted into tourist lodgings for budget conscious travellers. At the rear of many of these buildings is the narrow river which is still teeming with fishes, prawns and crabs thriving in its muddy and mildly smelly water. The river was full of fishing and other river transportation boats serving the needs of both the town folks and tourists. A highlight was our guided tour of the more than 200-year old Tan-Ky House, which is still being inhabited by its Chinese founder’s 9th generation descendents This elongated large three-storey house, with an interior courtyard, has exquisite wood framework, intricately carved doors and latticed windows, mature terra-cotta flooring and mother of pearl period furniture. Its numerous family heirlooms transform it into a fascinating heritage museum.
Our last stop was My Son, which is now a national park. Visitors will have to walk a kilometre stretch before getting into the park’s jeep to reach the nearest ruins of this world-renowned Champa temple complex site. It is Vietnam’s equivalent to Cambodia’s Angkor temples but predating them by about 400 years. These Hindu-inspired temple monuments were constructed by the kings of the powerful Champa Empire in southern Vietnam between the 5th and 13th centuries as a religious sanctuary. The Chams were a minority race in Vietnam, and their empire was finally conquered by the Viets, the majority race there, in the 17th century. Today, the Cham population is less than 100,000, both in Vietnam and elsewhere in that region.
However, unlike the magnificent temple ruins of Angkor, as epitomised by the unsurpassed Angkor Wat, the My Son temple monuments were devastated by American bombs because some of the North Vietnamese soldiers were hiding in the surrounding jungles. Out of the original group of 70 brick temples, only 20 partially standing remnants of these temples scattered over 20 sites remain to tell their sorrowful stories of the madness of human destruction. In their heydays, the finest and most elaborately adorned temple tower was more than 70 meters tall and was clearly visible from a far distance. However, because of the vastness of the temple sites and the presence of land mines there, we were only allowed to see a few representative specimens of the My Son temples ruins located in safe areas. I was distressed to see here and there small segments of the original temple structures, interspersed with isolated forlorn looking sculpted works of art of superb artistry and craftsmanship. Other temple monuments had been reduced to piles of rubbles and columns. Luckily for mankind, many of the finest My Son artefacts of different eras and from other ancient sites were farsightedly removed to the world-renowned Champa Museum in nearby Da Nang before the Vietnam War to benefit all art lovers and to enhance their visit to the ruins.
Having spent a delightful morning at this museum before our My Son adventure had definitely helped me visualise in my mind’s eyes what this holy site would look like in its pristine state, with its proud temple towers pointing to the heaven above. Among the hundreds of rare exhibits are temple monuments and varied exquisitely carved stone statues and bas-reliefs of different shapes and dimensions, with Hindu or Buddhist-inspired themes, as well as photographic exhibits of some original structures before their destruction. These cover a period of 900 years and their craftsmanship is comparable to those at the more famous Angkor temple sites.
- The Silk Air has regular flights to Da Nang and offers conducted tours to Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue. Local tour agencies will arrange day trips to My Son.
- Comfortable hotels at reasonable costs are easily available in the above cities. Walk-in customers can often get attractive discounts, especially during the off-peak periods.
- Vietnamese and other cuisines there are substantially cheaper than in Singapore. There are many wine bars, jazz clubs and karaoke establishments which are popular with the locals and tourists alike.
- Vietnamese food in Hue is reputed to be the best and the most sophisticated in Vietnam. There are also excellent Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Thai and Western restaurants there.
- Hoi An is famous for its 300-odd tailor shops of varying workmanship, and also for its silk and lacquer ware. High quality oil paintings and embroidery works are also available there and in Hue and Danang. Do bargain hard and avoid buying at outlets recommended by your tour guides as prices will be inflated.
- A wide range of marine and other dried goods, especially the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce, which experienced Singaporean tourists claim is the world’s best, are good buys in Da Nang’s Central Market.
- US currency is freely accepted in hotels, restaurants and shops frequented by tourists.
- The best times to go are in April-May or September-October when the temperatures are more suitable for touring.
Lam Pin Foo