Travel Tales: Hoi An to Hue

Now I am in the city of Hue. Yesterday I experienced my first real soaking by heavy SE Asian rain. Actually that’s not true, I had a good proper soaking in Cambodia, but that was fun, I was riding a bicycle with the kids on dirt roads with no belongings to worry about. This time it wasn’t fun. I was on a motorbike at rush hour with a terrible plastic poncho and my bag, laptop, phone etc and a good 20 minute drive ahead of me. I had to drop the bike off by 5pm so I had no choice but to do it. Anyway all’s well that ends well. It gave me a good excuse to lie in bed and watch TV guilt free.

Hue is a wonderful city, I love it. Which I wasn’t expecting as most travellers told me it was ok but nothing special. I have no idea why. Another reminder not to take the opinion of other travellers too seriously. I love that it is an old city with visible history all around. Right now I’m in a cafe somewhere inside the walls of the old citadel. I get such a kick driving under the citadel gates each time. It’s like joining in one of the activities of life in the past. You can see shops and homes built all over parts of the old wall structures in a sort of shanty-town style. The history is fully blended into the present life. There seems to be cemeteries everywhere, I have been exploring the outskirts and at any moment I might come across a field of the most ornate graves. I love the style of the graves here, unlike anything I had seen previously. There are tombs dotted around the place too, these are large grassy tiered areas with walls and small buildings. each tomb may take up to 100 square metres or in the case of an emperor or higher citizen, a lot more. There are the most beautiful pagodas everywhere as well. Beautiful in a grandiose flavour or understated and simple, in varying styles. These jump out at me because they are potential refuges from my daily activities, where I can go to meditate, and peek at the lives of the clergy. I love all of this. It is in contrast to the City of Da Nang where I spent the last few weeks. Da Nang is a very new city, only coming up in the last 10 years. They have a lovely pagoda, and some bridges. This style of fast city building holds absolutely no charm to me however, and makes my reception of Hue all the more welcome. Sorry Da Nang, I did have a great time with the friends I made there.

The last few days I have been trying to hammer through some of my work and also enjoy the sights and surrounding area of Hue. This morning I visited the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, which was supremely impressive. Just like something out of a chinese cinema epic. The weather was grey and muted, it really lent itself to the forest lake setting of the tomb, and the beautifully unique birdsong that called out so frequently and so catchily that I heard quite a few tourists whistling it’s refrain. On my way home a giant white Lady Buddha statue caught my eye on a mountain peak so I took a detour to check it out. It also was set beautifully. Along a winding, ancient looking stairway leading slowly up. Lined with lanterns and smoking incense pots and surrounded by trees, cows and a beautiful view of the surrounding foresty hills and the delightfully named Perfume River. On my way home last night I saw a christian church with a statue of Mary perched on the upper balcony, and it strikes me how similar of an aesthetic the Lady Buddha and the Christian Mary share.


In the preceding days I visited an old fighting pit where elephants fought tigers. Apparently the tigers were drugged and rigged to lose the fight as they represented rebellion and the elephants, the establishment. There were visible tiger claw marks on the walls. While I was there a playful dog followed me around. It was nice there, out in the back streets, a real villagey vibe with kids playing in the streets. On my way home I passed a very atmospheric abandoned factory of some sort looming ominously above of the village lanes. I then found a pretty pagoda nearby, had a chat with a 27 year old nun and then meditated for an hour. Being eaten by very unsubtle mosquitos and resisting the urge to react. They were lucky it was me in meditation mode, their clumsy bumbling and adjusting themselves was so alerting that they would’ve been slapped to death in a heartbeat at another time. I also visited an abandoned, run down water park which was gloomy and foreboding, it was very cool.


In Da Nang I stayed in a place called Sky Harbour. A cafe and language/culture-exchange-community-endeavour that I found through couchsurfing. I had stayed with them a few weeks before that so I was very warmly welcomed back, so much so that a planned 3 days turned into about 11. I helped them out by drawing a bunch of art on the walls and making the place look a bit more hip. These guys have become good friends, I loved staying with them.  I also met Dnyan there, and Indian guy who is cycling around the world. I did an interview with him here: Dnyan Interview. He is a very unique and fascinating guy. I highly recommend you listen to that interview. A few years ago he walked for 2 years around India spending no money, being beaten into a coma at one point and being jailed several times. Just before this world trip he had to learn to ride a bicycle for the first time!

Lastly I met Omer. An Israeli guy motorbiking through Vietnam with his friend. I took my chance to leave Sky Harbour, rented a bike and joined them for a day of biking to Hue. Thus begins my very belated, proper introduction to biking in Vietnam. (Don’t worry mum, all of the bikes I have used and perhaps every bike in Asia have broken speedometers. So I wasn’t speeding). On the way we did a little exploring and found a beautiful spot that we returned to the next day. It was an elevated lake, overlooking a river that runs through a forest, which stretches for miles into the distance. On either side of the lake, hills roll down, drawing the eye into the center, where on a small island a giant Buddha statue sits. It is looking directly out at the river’s path, which is dammed and begins at this lake. Very symbolic, and an admirable fusion of nature and religious construction. Behind it on the hills of the mainland sits a pagoda, only the ornate rooftops visible through the trees. We returned because we simply had to see that pagoda! It was raining and very misty. The perfect atmosphere. A temple hidden behind a like and the mist. We crossed by boat and ascended the long, obligatorily steep, stairway that any temple worth it’s salt should have. It was beautiful, and the most peaceful place I’ve been to in a long time. The rain kicked in and we rested and reflected after the long drive. We didn’t want to drive home in the rain and we asked the nuns if we could sleep there. My Vietnamese got us that far but I could only loosely guess that they told us to ask the Monks. They didn’t seem opposed to the idea but in the end we couldn’t get a moment with the monks before the boat driver came back and essentially cock-blocked us into getting back on the boat and inevitably driving 50 k’s back to town in the rain. That place was epic. So cinematic and atmospheric. I won’t forget it in a hurry. This is the place.

A had a very special time in Hoi an a few weeks ago. I returned there for a romantic holiday with Mai, a beautiful Vietnamese girl I had been seeing in Hanoi, and who you may have seen my drawings of. That city is perfect for romance. We explored the ruins at My Son, went to the beach, enjoyed the city and each other’s company a great deal. She had to leave to return to Hanoi for work, and I stayed on for another week and a half and I’m making my way back to Hanoi slowly. In that time I began meditating in a local pagoda near my lodgings. While I was there a 10 day meditation course was on its last day and they invited me to have lunch with them. I was able to get by chatting in simple Vietnamese. After that I was invited back every day. For the next 7 or 8 days I lunched with the nuns and the two child monk students at 11am. I would also meditate there for 2 hours every day. The monks were also there at another table but they were generally silent apart from a little interaction. The head nun was a burly woman of 60 odd. She was friendly, fat and bossy. Always rousing at the boys and barking out orders, a picture of nunly matriarchy. She eagerly showed me her holiday photos and showed me around the place. Very happy to share lunch with me and show me hospitality. I had a very special time there and I began to joke around and have a rapport with the monk boys, but eventually I had to leave. I would like to make some art about this. I did make a little video here. This was a very unique time for me and I also loved it. I broke my day up between working in cafes, cruising the beautiful streets and visiting that pagoda.

I have begun to realise I am having the most fun in my travels when I am alone. Each day is like a game. Find my breakfast spot, find a workspace, find lunch, do some sightseeing or exploring in between all of this, choose a pagoda or place for meditation, work more, eat. Perhaps socialize in the evenings or sometime if I have met anyone in the area, end the night with more work and meditation or a video or what have you. It’s a sort of routine within a very unroutine lifestyle. I really enjoy this.

Lately my stock of funds began to dwindle, and I have tried to be creative about how I re stock which has been successful. But I will call a stop to this entry do some work and talk about my Patreon project in a later post.


2 thoughts on “Travel Tales: Hoi An to Hue

  1. Hi James,

    Thanks so much for sending me the link to this, loveing reading about your parallel experiences. I’m afraid I’m one of the travellers who didn’t get Hue, although that may be partly down to terrible weather and lodgings. Seriously impressed you can get by in vietnamese. Finally I can’t tell you how much I agree with you about being alone. I feel this so much that I’ve begun to worry about returning home because of it! It’s so incredibly liberating being to work and live with no limits, expectations, deadlines or even casual social meetings to keep to. Best of luck with your travels and perhaps we shall meet one day. Alice


    1. Thanks for reading Alice, and yes! Being alone is just the best! I dont know how I would achieve it either if I had to return to london (where I also lived before this trip). you almost have to just actively become a hermit. I’ll share with you an article that helped me to justify turning down many of the social invitations I recieve nowadays. It helps me to override the natural intuition to feel ‘rude’ or ‘socially unhealthy’. Maybe you’ll find it useful.


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