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Badminton, bicycles and beaches in Vietnam

‘Try something new everyday!’  While living in Hue, Vietnam, for 3 weeks in April this became the mantra for me and my 8 year-old daughter – easy enough to do in such a vibrant city with surprises everywhere!

From my daughter’s tamer option of choosing green bean ice-cream to me eating congealed blood in a soup, from my daughter wearing a Vietnamese-style face mask while riding a bike to me trying out a skin-whitening deodorant(?!), we tried to truly immerse ourselves in Vietnamese culture.

While most tourists visit Vietnam travelling north to south or south to north, we decided to instead get to know one place very well.  The city of Hue was our choice and our exotic home-away-from-home.  Rather than being typical tourists trudging aimlessly in the heat, shopping in tourist shops, eating in tourist cafes and visiting historic sites, I wanted us to spurn French fries, pizza and souvenirs in the quest to really get to know “our” city.

Vietnam is known for being safe and friendly – a great place to bring a child and try new things.  Hue is a smallish city in Central Vietnam centred around the Huong River.  It has a modern eastern side (with the vast majority of hotels and tourist area) and an older western side dominated by the Citadel which holds the Forbidden City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Figuring out how the locals use a city is the quest of every curious tourist.  I quickly realised that by my wake up time of 6am (early I thought!) city life was already in full swing – breakfast stew bubbling in the streets, children already dressed for school and the ever-present motorbikes honking.  Determined to figure out what everyone did so early in the morning, we set out on a scouting mission at 5am the next day.

By April it’s getting very hot in Central Vietnam, so cycling at 5am with the sun already well up is a great time to start the day.  As I headed over the Truong Tien bridge towards the citadel, I discovered that the bridge doubles as a gym early in the morning!  Stretches using the bridge trusses, graceful tai chi movements and aerobic exercises on the footpath– the bridge was full of local Vietnamese people making a healthy start to the day.

Over in the Citadel there were similar scenes, including badminton and soccer games and some industrious snail collecting from the moat.  Very inspiring – so much so that the same day we bought a cheap badminton set from the bookstore and began our own early morning (well 6:30am…) badminton games down by the riverbank.  The men drinking coffee at the café opposite certainly seemed amused by our amateur badminton!

If you’re really up for some bustle in the morning, visit the outdoor food section of Dong Ba market.  Push your way through the vendors pulling fruit-laden carts and lugging heavy bags to set up their wares - food at its freshest before it’s exposed to the heat of the day.  (Just as interesting is tracing the same route at the end of the day, stepping around swept-up piles of garlic skins and other food rubbish. ) While at Dong Ba market try local che, a unique drink where you choose your ingredients from the many jars on display, with options such as sweet beans, tofu, banana (and many strange things I can’t name!) and have it mixed with milk and ice.  

Hue is small but busy and condensed – if you start craving New Zealand-like green open spaces, I recommend a bicycle ride through the rice fields to the ancient Japanese Bridge, Thanh Toan.  Taking around half an hour, it’s a peaceful ride and a good opportunity to observe the rice growing season and rural life.  Sights we saw ranged from farmers leading water buffalo down the road to a noisy and colourful rural wedding.  The bridge itself is unassuming – here the journey is worth more than the destination!

For a further trip, head out by taxi to Thuan An beach 16km from the city centre.  Arriving there you’ll find cafes flanking the beach and have to pay if you want to use their thatched shelters and seats on the sand – definitely worth it as it gets very hot!  Thuan An is a beautiful long sandy beach with enough waves to make it interesting, although the current is strong.  We arrived at 9am – a great time to swim as it’s already much warmer than a New Zealand summer’s day.  It was unusually quiet – apart from evidence of fishing boats there was a huge expanse of sand and sea just for us.   We were perplexed as to why there were no locals using the beach, although we were well aware of the cultural avoidance of a tan at all costs (the reason why you see women wearing long gloves when out in the sun on bicycles or motorbikes).

However, returning for a sunset swim another evening, we discovered how locals use the beach – swimming at night!  The beach was packed with a festival-like atmosphere - most of the lit-up shelters were occupied, lifeguards were in action, and vendors were plying the beach with hot and cold food (I recommend local beer with steamed buns and large rice wafers).

Once the sun goes down the swimming doesn’t stop, and why should it when the water is so warm and the beach is lit up?  Just don’t go deeper than waist-high unless you want the embarrassment of being spotlighted by a lifeguard’s torch and having a whistle blown at you.  On your way back from the beach at night take a detour to visit the Truong Tien bridge with its rotating coloured lights.  Truly mesmerising to watch or to be in as you cross.

Evening in Hue brings vast choices on places to eat, from 5 star hotel restaurants, to trendy western pizza places to very local Vietnamese restaurants where you’ll be lucky to find a menu in English.  To keep it easy, our favourite eating-out meal became chicken sticky rice from the street vendor opposite the Imperial Hotel.  For the equivalent of NZ$2 you can enjoy a bowl of chicken, sticky rice with coriander and as much chilli as you dare.  Hunched over low plastic furniture, eating with chopsticks that you’ve wiped clean on the supplied pieces of paper, it’s a surreal thing to gaze up at the 5 star Imperial Hotel and realise that you wouldn’t trade your tasty and novel dinner for a table in their restaurant.

People always arrive in Vietnam concerned with the sanitary conditions.  And they always leave realising that it’s just as clean as western standards, just in a different way.  Certainly gutters are used as a general rubbish tip, from the usual plastic bags of rubbish placed there to mothers hovering bare-bottomed babies over the gutter.  The difference is how thoroughly and regularly streets are cleaned.  You will see the frequent street sweepers in action and your ear will come to know the familiar chant of the lady calling from her bicycle to collect household rubbish.

Everything is very cheap in Vietnam by western standards and there really is little need for a 5 star hotel.  Even 2 star hotels are clean, air-conditioned with reliable hot water and computers with internet access.  What else do you really need?  If you start hankering some 5 star luxury, pay a small amount to use the pool at the riverside La Residence Hotel.  With a delicious menu, cocktails, poolside service and big fluffy towels on your sun lounger, it’s the perfect pampering break from the heat and bustle of the streets.

Vietnamese people love children and my daughter became the perfect accessory to get to know locals.  I also got fit lugging her around on the back of my bicycle while she enjoyed smiling back at the many people smiling at her.  Renting a bicycle is easily the cheapest and easiest way to get around – and in the often sweltering heat the breeze generated by a little speed is very welcome!  Alternatively taxis are cheap, easy and everywhere.  For the really adventurous, hire a motorbike and try navigating peak hour traffic!

Vietnam is a place to embrace every difference – shrug away uncertainties and “try something new” every day.

• Tamra stayed at the Holiday Hotel, Hue

Written by Tamra Ewing