THE CENTRAL COAST || AROUND HOI AN
The narrowest bit of the country holds an astonishingly dense collection of sights. From the south, you’ll come first to the town of Hoi An, highly traditional and hugely popular on account of its wonderful architecture, laidback air and superb culinary scene. Further north is Da Nang, whose bars, restaurants and sleek new buildings make it enjoyable in a more contemporary sense; however, it too boasts a wealth of nearby sights. Then there’s Hué, erstwhile capital of the Nguyen dynasty. A visit to the old Imperial City, with its splendid palace buildings and manicured gardens is like a taking a step into the past. Lastly are the sights pertaining to the American War in the famed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The area marked the divide between North and South Vietnam, which, some would argue, still exists today.
You’ll notice great differences in weather, cuisine, language and even local character to the north and south of the Ben Hai River, which runs through the DMZ. However, Vietnam was not always divided along this point – it was previously the Hoanh Son Mountains, north of Dong Hoi that formed the cultural and political line between the Chinese-dominated sphere to the north, and the Indianized Champa kingdom to the south. As independent Vietnam grew in power in the eleventh century, so its armies pushed southwards to the next natural frontier, the Hai Van Pass near Hué. Here again, the Cham resisted further invasion until the fifteenth century, when their great temple complex at My Son was seized and their kingdom shattered.
Since then, other contenders have battled back and forth over this same ground, among them the Nguyen and Trinh lords, whose simmering rivalry ended in victory for the southern Nguyen and the emergence of Hué as the nation’s capital in the nineteenth century. The Nguyen dynasty transformed Hué into a stately Imperial City, whose palaces, temples and grand mausoleums now constitute one of the highlights of a visit to Vietnam, despite the ravages they suffered during successive wars. In 1954, Vietnam was divided at the Seventeenth Parallel, only 100km north of Hué, where the Ben Hai River and the DMZ marked the border between North and South Vietnam until reunification in 1975. Though there’s little to see on the ground these days, the desolate battlefields of the DMZ are a poignant memorial to those who fought here on both sides, and to the civilians who lost their lives in the bitter conflict.
Da Nang and nearby China Beach are other evocative names from the American War, but the region has more to offer. The compact riverside town of Hoi An, with its core of traditional, wood-built merchants’ houses and jaunty Chinese Assembly Halls, is a particularly captivating place. Inland from Hoi An, the Cham spiritual core, My Son, survives as a haunting array of overgrown ruins in a hidden valley, while heading the other way you’ll find a succession of pristine beaches that are now the subject of mass development.
This region has a particularly complicated climate as it forms a transitional zone between the north and south of Vietnam. In general, around Da Nang and Hué the rainy season lasts from September to February, with most rain falling between late September and December; during this season it’s not unusual for road and rail links to be cut. Hué suffers particularly badly and, even during the “dry season” from March to August, it’s possible to have several days of torrential rain, giving the city an annual average of three metres. Overall, the best time to visit this southern region is in spring, from February to late May, before both temperatures and humidity reach their summer maximum (averaging around 30°C), or just at the end of the summer before the rains break.
The north-south divide
Although Vietnam was reunified in 1976, there still exists a palpable north-south divide, one that many tourists end up picking up on as they head across the DMZ. Of course, many of the differences stem from the ideological division that followed World War II, and the protracted, bloody war between the two sides; however, there have long been other factors at work.
One of these is the relative fertility of the soil – parts of the south get three rice harvests per year, while in the north it’s usually one. This is said to feed into a great difference in character between north and south – northerners are said to be more frugal and southerners more laidback, partly because the latter have historically had less work to do for the same reward.
There are also notable differences in tradition. Ho Chi Minh City flaunts its Westernisation, while Hanoians are just as proud of their city’s colonial- and dynastic-era structures.
Then there are dialectical differences – ask a traditionally-clad Hanoian girl what she’s wearing, and she’ll say it’s “ao zai”. Ask a lady from Ho Chi Minh City the same thing, and it would be an “ao yai”. Trained ears will also hear that there’s another dialect at work in the centre of Vietnam.
However, for visitors, the most enjoyable aspect of the north-south divide is likely to be the food. The quintessential northern food is pho bo – this beef noodle soup is found throughout Vietnam, but originated in Hanoi, where it’s still at its best. Other northern dishes include hotpots, rice gruels and sweet and sout soups. Southern flavours include curries and spicy dipping sauces, often married with a touch of sugar and coconut milk to balance the heat. However, most renowned nationwide is central cuisine – both Hoi An and Hué boast dishes of astonishing variety.