We had a wonderful time in Nha Trang, despite the cooler than expected weather. We've realized that even though this part of Vietnam is actually south of the Virgin Islands, it's on much more open water and therefore much cooler than the tropical temperatures to which we became accustomed. (And spoiled by, apparently.)
Before we leave Nha Trang, I have to mention a fabulous French restaurant we went to one evening: Le Bouchon, on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, is authentically French and just wonderful! I had the duck, Richard had the steak tartare, and we both loved every bite! We were too full for dessert, but I had the tart Tatin several days later and that too was delicious! So if you get to Nha Trang, definitely check out Le Bouchon! (Sorry, no website.)
We took the train from Nha Trang to Danang, which is about halfway up the coast of Vietnam. This was a 9 hour train trip, and we ended up with the 5 AM train, arriving at 2 PM or so. I should add that we spent about 90 minutes at the train station in Nha Trang to book our tickets - one can go to a travel agent, or use an online service as we did in Saigon. But in person, we found out that we overpaid in Saigon, which is quite common. Plus, being over age 60, we both qualified for a discount. We also had fun chatting with both Vietnamese people purchasing tickets, and with a few tourists. So while it might be frustrating to take a number and wait wait wait, well, patience is a virtue and next time we know to bring our kindles.
Our seats were facing the back of the train, so I found an empty seat facing forwards and sat there. The conductor didn't seem to mind, nor any passengers. The scenery was much the same as our earlier travels: green green rice paddies stretching endlessly in both directions, with blueish hills off to the west. Occasional areas where we could see the ocean, and charming fishing villages with picturesque boats in the harbors. More and more water buffaloes as we headed north, and more and more Buddhist temples dotting the landscape, with occasional huge white Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in the distance.
And then we arrived in Danang (sometimes spelled Da Nang - emphasis in the second syllable) - a large and thriving city with nearly one million people. Danang is on a peninsula, and is split by the Han River, so there are numerous bridges connecting the various parts of the city. Most travellers head to the beaches on both sides of the peninsula, or the town of Hoi An, to the south and one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Our little guide book that we picked up in Saigon says that Danang is an up and coming Vietnamese city, with "one of the most picturesque riverfronts in all of Vietnam." The original town was established by the Champa Kingdom in the 2nd century, and the French imperialists began their Indochina campaign here. The city has grown and is now the fifth largest city in the country. So, there's a great history as well as much to do in the area.
We're staying in the city center area, on the east side of the Han River. There aren't many tourists here, we're in our usual off the beaten path mode. There aren't many big restaurants, or posh hotels. There are local bakeries, food carts, small hotels such as the place were staying in, old temples, schools, coffee shops, houses, a small market, and one area devoted to motorscooter repair.
It seems to be a neighborhood where average people live and work. With the occasional dog running by, or cat sitting on a motorscooter. (And don't you love the colorful propane cans behind the cat???)
The river, of course, is muddy - but the boats are colorful and gorgeous! There are riverwalks and parks on both sides of the river, so that area has been our main way of walking to and from wherever we visit. And the bridges - I'll get back to the bridges - but they are many and varied.
Buddhism seems to be more prevalent here than in Saigon and even Nha Trang, or maybe just more visible. I've encountered three or four temples in our neighborhood, with beautiful buildings and amazing mosaics and the white Buddha statues that seem to be very Vietnamese. We spent some time chatting with a waiter at a hotel café, and I was able to ask about this. He's Buddhist, so I asked if there was a reason that the largest statues seem to be white. (I explained that I was curious, since the most famous statues of Buddha in Thailand were in gold.) He said the statues are often marble, since there are large marble quarries in Vietnam. And some of the statues are also ceramic, and white. He said many of the smaller Buddhas are multi-colored, but the biggest statues seem to be white. So, it doesn't seem to be a theological reason, just what materials are at hand.
I loved the decorations on some of the temples, which are mosaic. Many appeared to be made from broken dishes and bowls, especially in the cobalt blue on white designs that are so common in everyday dishes in this part of the world.
The oldest temple I visited was first built in 1847, though it has been maintained well over the years. I arrived in the late afternoon and was looking and photographing through the gates; a very old woman (looking 100 years old or so) opened the gate to turn on the lights, and she invited me in so I could look around and take more photos. And she made sure I took photos of both green mosaic lion dogs. We had one of those conversations that we seem to fall into - she's talking to me in Vietnamese, I'm talking to her in English, we're both smiling and nodding and gesturing so we know we're sort of talking about the same stuff even though we don't understand a word the other is saying. Except when I say "gam ung" and she knows I'm saying thank you. (Somehow my "gam ung" brings out giggles in most people, but they repeat "gam ung" and we leave amid smiles.)
I know that Buddhism expects reverence of nature, so these spontaneous shrines might be part of that aspect of the religion. No idea at this point, but if I find out I'll report back.
In the meantime, I just enjoy these little religious vignettes that add color and humanity to the visual landscape.
We visited the Danang Museum, on the west bank of the Han River, walking across what we're calling the Rainbow Bridge. The real name is Song Han Bridge. Too long and too high for us to enjoy the walk across, but it has a weird spiderish structure in the center that definitely isn't holding up the bridge. So during the day, it looks like a cross between a Christmas tree and a daddy-long-legs spider, vaguely creepy.
Anyway, the Danang Museum - very nice museum, very interesting and informative. They had some of the best dioramas that we've seen in a museum, with gorgeous painted backgrounds, intricate sets of houses or temples or whatever, and sumptuously dressed mannikins. Absolutely worth visiting, plus the museum is FREE! One hundred percent FREE! It was empty of visitors when we arrived, though by the time we finished there was a tour group arriving. They have an interesting website, though I can't seem to get the English version: baotangdanang.vn
The museum itself is located inside the Dien Hai fortress ramparts, with brick walls and cannons at the ready. This is the site of the first battle with the French invaders in 1858. Definitely a must-see for history buffs like Richard, as well as art people like me. We both enjoyed our visit, and highly recommend this museum.
We wandered by a church, and I was struck by the statue of the Madonna. She looks almost exactly like the Lady of Mercy Bodhisattva I saw at the first temple I visited in Danang. Maybe a slightly less Asian face. Holding a baby in her left hand instead of a vase. But both wear headpieces appropriate to their culture. Both covered in long flowing robes. Both with right hands raised in a gesture of blessing. Both with faces calm and relaxed, gazing into vague distances and unseen futures. Just one of those archetypal images that transcend place, time, culture, religion. The ever-present Merciful Mother.
Okay, so on with the bridges. I think I've found my all time favorite bridge. Ever. There are fancy bridges around the world, with all kinds of designs and carvings, flowers, animals, mythical figures.
But this is the bridge to end all bridges.
I present: The Dragon Bridge!
Yes, the entire bridge looks like an undulating dragon! The upper and lower supports form the dragon's body as he arches upwards and then down into the river. Obviously, this is a sea-going dragon so there are no legs. But with a fierce head at one end, and a weapon-like tail at the opposite end of the bridge, well, this dragon is the guardian of the city!
This dragon laughs at the traffic crossing his back, just waiting for the right time to incinerate the unthinking who dare forget he is a DRAGON! Okay, well, he actually breathes fire on weekend nights. We haven't been here for that spectacle, but you know we're going to be there, front and center, to see this!
So - all these bridges do phenomenal light shows from sunset to about midnight! Every single night! We see them from our hotel, both from our room and from the rooftop restaurant and bar.
The Rainbow Bridge does wonderful rainbow lighting emanating from the central body of the spider. Then it switches to side-to-side rainbows. Then solid colors. With the buildings in the background doing their own rotating color light shows at the same time.
But the really amazing bridge is Mr Dragon, who turns aqua, royal blue, bright green, and yellow orange! From end to end, one segment at a time, the colors change and morph as he slowly changes color, a giant chameleon of a bridge! With a ferris wheel doing its own light show in the background! WHAT a view!!!
I know, this is a super long blog - so I'll close now, and continue in a day or two. And let you enjoy the magnificence of Mr Dragon Bridge!