s in g a p o r e ’ s d e f in i t i v e me n ’ s j o u r n a l
june 2013 / issue 82

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When I do finish playing, I’ll find the next best thing. Management does interest me
ryan giggs

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5/23/13 5:31 PM



Coming Right Up
Been to Hanoi. Done Saigon. Now venture into the heart of Vietnam via the gateway of Da Nang
words + photos juliana chan ADDITIONAL PHOTOS Huong Lan (kites / doors / citadel)

FROM TOP Red and gold shutters let light into the Imperial Temple; disused Ming bowls decorate the temple’s foundations OPPOSITE Children in Hue enjoying that soaring feeling as their kites take off in the evening sky

i will always remember my first journey to Vietnam. It was 2007. I was with some journalists bound for Can Tho in the Mekong delta, and thereafter for Phan Thiet, which lies just under the convex arc of the coastline, or what I like to call the belly of Vietnam. The approach was via Ho Chi Minh City – as one of two international gateway airports into the country at the time, the other being Hanoi – and then transfer over long, dusty roads, cross the Mekong by ferry, and spending many, many hours crammed in a van that had seen better days (I had a strong suspicion it could only run on first gear). Rickety bumpiness aside, the 11 of us had to share oxygen within the van’s tight confines, while its aircon struggled to circulate enough air to keep us alive, forget about cool. At some point, one of us had cried: “Stop! I need to get out!” Yet it had been a truly educational and memorable trip for all the awesome sights and sounds we savoured, the odd situations we encountered and the great friends we made. I have since revisited Vietnam many times and each has been more comfortable and convenient than the last, thanks to the furious capital investments in the last five years, which have provided for improved roads, spanking new tour vans and, more importantly, direct air routes into Central Vietnam, so that we can spend less time rolling along overused, undermaintained roads, and more time enjoying the diversity and beauty of the country.

It is SilkAir’s increased flights to Da Nang that has brought me back again ( Singapore Airlines’ regional carrier has stepped up its services to Da Nang since 31 March, and now flies there six times a week. On Mondays and Saturdays, the flights from Singapore take the route via Siem Reap, while on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the flights from Danang will stop over in Siem Reap before heading back to Singapore. Should time be of the essence, it would be possible to

select direct flights both ways. Or if you mean to visit Siem Reap as well, arrangements can be made to accommodate your travel plans. Da Nang is an important port city. But while it serves primarily as a commerce and education centre, it is fast becoming a premier holiday destination, offering exceptional golf courses, adventure activities on offshore islands and luxury beach and spa resorts, with still more in the pipeline, judging by the succession of construction work we passed en route to the Nam Hai, which is easily a destination in itself for its award winning design ( Looking at our itinerary, Da Nang seems to be a good launch pad for seeing a number of Unesco World Heritage sites, including Hoi An town, My Son sanctuary (say: mi sən – it has nothing to do with offspring, but is a name that means beautiful mountain), and the Citadel in Hue on the other side of Hai Van pass. For history buffs, it is this mountain pass, together with a tragic tale of a child princess, that linked the ancient Champa and Dai Viet kingdoms.

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Up until 1945, Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. The Chinese-style city was modelled after the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was the domain of the emperor, with all his concubines and offspring, and trespassers were punished by death. Today the Citadel is a designated Unesco World Heritage site and is being painstakingly restored so that people may have an idea of its former magnificence.

the citadel

the ties that bind and divide
As the story goes: the Dai Viet emperor offered his daughter in marriage to the Cham king so as to forge political alliance. She was but a child while he was getting on in years, and Champa customs dictated that royal consorts be cremated with expired sovereigns, and therein lay the problem. The Dai Viet people could not bear to see their beloved princess torched and resorted to treason to save her, resulting in war. Stories are a great way to appreciate ancient civilisations, not least that of the Champa, who left a stunning monument at My Son sanctuary. Ancient scripts have been uncovered from the site but experts are still deciphering their meaning. Our guide, who clearly prefers to romanticise the past than learn the truth, believes no one ever will. For the moment, Cham artefacts tell the story of a handsome race that has mastered control of elephants and horses, found glory in subduing ferocious beasts and indulged in the pleasures of the flesh.

Clockwise FROM here Artefact in My Son sanctuary; a villa in the Nam Hai; bygone Hue illustrated along the corridors of La Residence Hue; outside a shrine in Hoi An; a satisfying meal of xao banh uot

one can see distinct remnants from the past – the Japanese covered bridge, Chinese clan houses and Christian chapels – Hoi An is more of a cultural community now, abound with painters, wood carvers and stone sculptors. Tourism has shaped the township, resulting in a proliferation of galleries, cafes and restaurants at which to sample a cross-section of Vietnamese cuisine. Check out the shops and market for interesting tidbits and knickknacks. There’s much more than crass tourist souvenirs here. The lacquerware is gorgeous, some rendered with a Klimt-esque gold treatment, some with elegant eggshell mosaic work. I kicked myself for not buying an azure marble jar embellished with brass filigree work, just because it was too weighty to lug alongside my DSLR camera and laptop that I needed for my work.

While a cyclo ride feels increasingly out of place in Saigon or Hanoi, it is perfect for seeing Hue
maintained old French colonial property (, and it was easy to picture grand fetes and elegant society in its milieu, in those bygone days when it served as the governor’s residence.

eat your way through hue
We all love pho bo and banh mi, but there’s much more to Viet cuisine, and you’d discover a bewildering array in Hue itself. For one, it is a place of speciality dishes. You won’t find extensive menus in any restaurant because every establishment will likely serve just one specialty. Great ones to try are bun thit nuong (grilled meat on noodles) and banh uot (steamed rice pancakes) at Huyen Anh (52 Kim Long); banh bot loc (tapioca cakes with pork and shrimp) at Hoa Chu and banh uot xao (stirfried beef noodles) at Boi Tran Garden ( And of course, spicy bun bo hue originated from Hue. But for all that great food – the Nam Hai and La Residence Hue didn’t believe in starving journalists – I still crave those steamed fresh flower crabs I had on a beach in Phan Thiet that first time in Vietnam.

on a clear day you can see forever
That might have been true of the vantage point on Hai Van pass – and the stunning coastline, sparkling bay and old North-South Railway would have been visible – had it not been raining the night before we got there. What greeted us was a hill shrouded in mist with old bunkers emerging into view as we approached. I thought it was rather romantic in a forlorn sort of way, like a page out of Wuthering Heights. The romantic pulse grew stronger as we arrived in Hue. La Residence Hue is a marvellously

meet in peace
That is what Hoi An means, and appropriate if you think about how it had started out as community of spice and textile merchants from China, Japan, India and Europe. To thrive in trade, people bridged differences and cultivated the art of a win-win coexistence. While

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