We’ve learned that most destinations have unlimited numbers of tours and guides eager for your business so there is no need to pre-book. And that’s how it was in Hue. We decided on two tours, first to Paradise Cave located north of Hue in PhongNha Ke Bang National Park and then down the Perfume River to various temples and tombs located on its banks. Our hosts at Purple Hue homestay made a couple of phone calls and early the next morning a taxi was at our door to whisk us away. It was that simple.
The first tour was by bus north up Hwy A1 past the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ wasn’t on the itinerary but our guide was persuaded to stop for a few minutes so we could look around. Curiously, the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it) seems more on the mind of tourists than of locals who are busy getting on with daily life. The DMZ was a strip of land bisecting Vietnam along the 17th parallel but today, in touristic terms, it generally refers to the area where Hwy A1 crosses the Hien Luong River and is comprised of a large memorial with a very impressive flag, a small museum and the original metal bridge across the Hien Luong River, painted a different colour on each side. I expect there’s more to see but that’s all our 15 minute stop revealed.
We were soon back on the bus heading across the river into Quảng Bình Province. We stopped at La Vang Holyland and it seems they get big crowds as it has the largest washroom I’ve ever seen. The country has a long history of religious conflict which played a large role in the lead-up to the Vietnam War. Their current government has an official policy of tolerating religion (or at least religious buildings) on a non-sectarian basis, but reality is otherwise.
Quảng Bình was, we learned, the birthplace of both General Giap and President Diem, two Vietnamese nationalists who ended up on different sides of history. The highway had been, we were told, a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and there was a slightly surreal sense about an ordinary highway sign giving the mileage to Khe Sanh, famous for a long and bloody siege suffered by US Marines.
It was on to Paradise Cave, just one of many caves in PhongNha park and we saw only a section near the entrance. Paradise Cave is said to be the largest in the world, several kilometers long with rivers, beaches and space for a 40 storey building. People spend days exploring it and I can see why. The cave is magnificent. It’s also dark despite the excellent lighting but a few photos made the cut.
After returning to Hue we exchanged some money near the market — jewellers do double-duty as exchanges — and explored a bit more around Hue. We came across a small night market across the Perfume River where I was thrilled to discover Vietnamese pizza made with rice paper and cooked on a charcoal BBQ. Great stuff as was a cold dessert comprised of sweet bean curd and a variety of toppings. All very colourful and tastes pretty good. That was it for the day. We walked back home over the Cau Truong Tien bridge and around the Citadel. A nice walk in the cool evening air and a good sleep in preparation for the next day’s river tour.