Cruising the dream

21:09, May 06 2012
CRUSING: Vietnam from the back of a motorbike.
COLOURS BRIGHT: A walkbridge across the Thu Bon River in Hoi An is brightly festooned with lanterns.
VISTA: The view from the top of Hai Van Pass, south of Hue in central Vietnam.
VISTA: Beaches beckon in the distance.
The view from the back of a motorbike.
HOT WORK: Workers carry out maintenance on the highway through Hai Van Pass, south of Hue, Vietnam.
PICTURE PERFECT: Beautiful scenes aplenty in the ancient city of Hoi An in central Vietnam.

A journey through the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam is a thrilling experience, as Herald reporter Rosa Studholme found out when she travelled there last month.

Golden beaches come into view as we reach the peak of Hai Van Pass, south of Hue in Vietnam. The road curls downwards, leading us on our way.

Even the noise of the motorbike we hired in Hue to make the 140-kilometre journey to Hoi An can't detract from the perfect and spectacular surroundings.

It's a mixture of the brilliant green jungle and the glorious blue of the South China Sea stretched out before us.

"I'm cruising the highway on a motorbike. This is a dream for me," my partner, Henry, says.

He's right. This is truly a highlight of our trip the length of this country.


Grazing water buffalo are scattered across the landscape and goats carefully examine the side of the road for tasty morsels.

Villagers meander down the road by pedal or on foot. There is no rush in the countryside. It's a far cry from the dizzying scenes we had experienced in Hanoi.

Even at the top of this beautiful pass, you can't escape the hawkers. All year, they gather to reel in tourists who travel this well-trodden tourist trail.

Beers, conical hats and sunglasses are on offer.

Across the road, on a hill, lie the ruins of an abandoned United States Army base, a blunt reminder of the devastating scenes that ravaged the region 40 years before.

"Hello, hello, you want something to drink?" the hawkers call.

We decline. Their faces are a picture of indignation.

We carry on. Along the road we spot a dusty cafe complete with sky-blue plastic chairs and tables. It's dirty, but with the heat of the day getting the better of us, it's nevertheless inviting.

We ask for Fantas.

The woman points to the display on the side of the road where there are Mirindas – warm and looking well aged. As the bottles are opened, rust flakes off the rims, but we take our seats and drink them anyway.

A wee girl sitting on a bench fixes her gaze on us with a cheeky glint in her eye, fascinated by the latest visitors to pass by. She is too shy to approach us and cannot speak English. We smile back and she coyly looks away.

Back on the road, it's a sharp jolt back to reality as the highway descends into Danang, Vietnam's fourth-largest city, with a population of 887,100 at last count.

Danang, like much of the country, still bears the signs of its imperial history, despite its centuries-long struggle for independence, which only ended in 1975.

The French first landed in Danang in August 1858, its troops led by Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, and under the orders of Napoleon III.

The French overpowered the Vietnamese defences stationed in Danang, occupying the city and what is now known as Son Tra peninsula.

French colonists renamed the city Tourane, placing it under the control of the governor-general of Indochina.

During the Vietnam war a century later, the city was home to a major airbase, used by both the South Vietnamese and US air forces. It reached an average of 2595 air traffic operations daily, more than any airport in the world at that time.

Horns honk incessantly. Only carefully timed manoeuvres get us through the large intersections.

Pushing through, we arrive on the coastline of Danang and make our way south. Any glimpse of the long stretches of golden sand that make up China Beach are blocked by the dozens of resorts that have claimed it. It seems that as one goes up, another is just getting started.

Finally, we reach Hoi An, the city renowned for its tailoring. Eager vendors will make anything from the finest suits to the most illustrious shoes, to be picked up the following day.

We make our way methodically along the streets of the old town – a perfectly preserved area, protected by Unesco World Heritage Status.

A former trading port, the buildings and streetscape are a fusion of local and foreign influences. It's a pretty place that lies along the Thu Bon River.

Commerce has given way to tourism in the 21st century and, like much of the country, the town seems geared up to receive it.

Insistent shopkeepers call at you, imploring you to buy something. The prices are almost uncomfortably low, but the thrill of bartering lures you in.

It's very hot and chokingly humid.

I'm wilting like a leaf in the heat, sweat snaking down my back and beading on my forehead, but I take heart that the locals seem to struggle with it too.

Wandering into one of the plethora of clothes shops in the energy-sapping midday heat, we find the assistant lying sleeping on a mat with a fan nearby. She still manages to bring herself to her feet with a weary smile and give me her undivided attention.

We are aghast at the locals wearing black jeans and hoodies in the heat of the day. We're the crazy ones, they tell us. Keeping covered up keeps you cool.

One thing is for sure: the searing heat, the relentless pace, the noise and the wonderful colour of the place start to get under your skin.

It's a country described by many as an "assault on the senses".

In my experience, that could not be truer.

The Timaru Herald