By Gary Corbett
If you are considering a visit to Vietnam and are interested in cycling, the history of Vietnam, the Vietnam War and Vietnamese food you can do no better than book the SpiceRoads Cycle Tours’ ‘Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle’ tour.
The guarantee is that by the end of the 7-day tour you will not only be much more informed about the colourful history of Vietnam and the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, but will have fallen in love with Vietnamese food and the Vietnamese people in general.
And, as a bonus, you will have the opportunity to explore the historic central Vietnam cities of Hue and Hoi An.
Both cities, for vastly different reasons, played vital roles over the centuries in the history of Vietnam and as a result have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, are motivation enough to attract a modern day wave of international tourists.
HUE (pronounced ‘whey’)
Hue, the former capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 during the Nguyen Dynasty, is a city of palaces, temples, pagodas, imperial tombs and culture.
Situated on the famed and beautifully named Perfume River, the city along with the surrounding countryside was the scene of some of the most intense battles during the Vietnam War.
The result, unfortunately, was the destruction of much of the original city and many of its finest buildings, but this has not stopped Hue from continuing to resonate with the history of the Nguyen emperors and the glory days of imperial Vietnam.
With accommodation for the SpiceRoads’ ‘Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle’ tour in Hue’s Festival Hotel for the first three nights of the tour, guests were given ample opportunity to discover the city by bicycle and on foot.
First impressions are of a bustling city, street vendors, street food and pesky touts who hone in on unsuspecting tourists and, of course, the picturesque Perfume River.
But dig a bit deeper and you start to uncover the real heart of the city – its imperial heritage, royal splendour and impressive royal mausoleums.
Unfortunately ongoing bombing associated with the 1968 Tet Offensive resulted in much of the city and the famous Imperial Citadel palaces being destroyed; however, continual restorative work since the end of the Vietnam War (or the ‘American War’ as it is known to many Vietnamese) means that Hue in 2015 is very much a blend of new and old.
The result is tourists who stay in modern hotels visiting historical sites such as the Imperial Citadel, the Forbidden Purple City – once the residence of the royal family – and impressive mausoleums built to commemorate Emperors Ming Mang and Khai Dinh, the second and 12th Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.
In particular a tour of the massive Citadel complex on the banks of the Perfume River is a must for any visitor to Hue. The complex features hundreds of monuments and ruins, including the Forbidden Purple City, the Imperial City, royal tombs, the flag tower, pagodas, temples, a library and a museum.
Also on the ‘must-do’ list is a visit to the royal tombs of Emperors Ming Mang and Khai Dinh.
Ming Mang’s mausoleum, which spreads over 18 hectares and is surrounded by a three-metre high wall and took more than 20 years to complete, encloses 40 monuments, including palaces, temples and pavilions built strictly in accordance to the Emperor’s Confucian principles. Clearly it is a fascinating example of Vietnamese/Chinese architecture.
In contrast Emperor Khai Dinh’s royal tomb, which was built from 1920 to 1931, is a blend of Western and Eastern architecture that reflects the colonial influence of France and the Emperor’s close links to the French colonists.
Hoi An, which is the final destination on the SpiceRoads’ ‘Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle’ tour, was once the busiest and richest sea port in south-east Asia and is a ‘must-see’ destination on any trip to Vietnam.
Historic, quaint, unique, romantic and exotic are all words that could be used to describe the city and its unique architecture, with tourists flocking from all corners of the world to experience its special charm.
With the town fortunately spared any major damage during the Vietnam War, it is today an exceptionally well-preserved example of a south-east Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Centuries of contact with Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders helped to influence the town’s architecture which now stands as an accurate reflection of its cosmopolitan past.
Traditional Chinese-style houses built strictly to Feng Shui principles stand next door to European-influenced buildings that boast grand architecture and typical Vietnamese structures.
The result is a graceful and atmospheric town that has been rated as being amongst the 10 most romantic places to visit in the world.
With most motorised traffic banned from the centre of the ancient town, modern-day tourists are free to roam the streets and narrow alleyways, visit temples, haggle for a bargain at the traditional town market or simply sit in a coffee shop and people watch.
Ironically Hoi An owes its old-town character and recent surge in popularity to good luck rather than planning. With the Thu Bon River silting up in the late 19th century the town’s lifeblood – cargo vessels – could no longer access the town’s docks.
For more than a century the city’s importance to the outside world dwindled until the 1990s when foreign tourists helped to kick start the local economy.
Today Hoi An is once again a cosmopolitan destination, with tourists having replaced international traders and tourist boats now taking the place of cargo vessels.
As a result the town is once again one of Vietnam’s wealthiest and a culinary melting pot of the best of Vietnamese food.