The Vale of Clwyd – Denbigh and around

If Wrexham is post-industrial and a bit run-down, the Vale of Clwyd, not far to the west, is redolent of old money and older history. I also find it very beautiful – there’s just something about the line of the Clwydian Hills looking down to the east, even though they’re not particularly high or dramatic. This area was disputed by the Welsh and English in medieval times, but as soon as Wales was properly united with England in 1536 the leading citizens of Ruthin and Denbigh took advantage of new opportunities and became wealthy merchants, MPs and even Mayor of London. They built fine houses and enhanced existing churches by building a second nave alongside the original one, something that is a local speciality (although hardly unique – there are more around Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and in Cornwall, for instance). Denbighshire now puts out some wonderfully detailed tourist info, full of nuggets that thrill history geeks like me. In particular, the churches of Denbigh tell an interesting story – the town’s first church (and still its official parish church) was St Marcella’s, in the country to the east of town (see below), then in the thirteenth century St Hilary’s was built just outside the castle. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, began building a new Puritan church that was abandoned after his death in 1588 and is still known as Leicester’s Folly. St Hilary’s fell out of use after the large Victorian church of St Mary’s was built in 1874 and was demolished in 1923, apart from the tower which you can still see. There’s also the usual astonishing number of Nonconformist chapels.

The church of St Marcella in Llanfarchell (aka Whitchurch), a mile or so east of Denbigh (open daily 9am-4pm), is a fine example, with a magnificent 15th-century hammerbeam roof over both naves, and houses memorials to many of them, most notably John Salusbury (died 1578) and his wife Dame Joan (née Myddelton – see below), their recumbent effigies lying on an alabaster table-top monument in the south chancel. In the north chancel the memorial to Humphrey Llwyd (1527-68) sits between those to Robert Salusbury (died 1774) and a brass commemorating Richard Myddelton (c.1508-75 – see below). There’s also a sign outside to the tomb of the Welsh poet Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards), who died in 1810.

Humphrey Llwyd was an alderman then MP for Denbigh, in 1563 steering through the House of Commons the bill to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh (which turned out to be crucial to the survival of the Welsh language), and produced a map of Wales which was published by Ortelius in his groundbreaking world atlas of 1573. The Salusbury/Salesbury family was the most powerful in Denbigh, and William Salesbury (c.1520-c.1584) was a humanist scholar who supported Llwyd and Richard Davies (c.1505-81) and William Morgan (1545-1604), both Bishops of St Asaph, in their efforts to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – Morgan did much of the work in 1578-87 when he was vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, southwest of Llangollen. Another supporter was Gabriel Goodman (1528-1601) from Ruthin, who became Dean of Westminster and helped manage the printing of the Bible in London – the buildings he funded in Ruthin are mentioned in the Rough Guide.

Richard Myddelton was MP for Denbigh and governor of Denbigh Castle; his son Sir Thomas made a lot of money in London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1613, while his younger brother Sir Hugh (1560-1631) was a business partner of Sir Walter Raleigh in his explorations of the New World, and promoter-engineer of the New River, which brought water from Hertfordshire to the booming (and unhealthy) city of London. Sir Thomas bought Chirk Castle (well covered in the Rough Guide), and financed Y Beibl Bach (the Little Bible), the first easily affordable Welsh bible (1630), and his son Sir Thomas Myddelton II became a parliamentarian general, besieging Holt Castle among other exploits.

The church of Llanrhaeadr (strictly speaking Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch), midway between Ruthin and Denbigh, is in the Rough Guide because of its wonderful 16th-century Jesse Window, perhaps the finest stained glass in Wales. However there are many other fascinating little churches in the Ruthin area, such as Llanrhydd, a mile east of Ruthin, which houses an early sixteenth-century rood screen, a seventeenth-century altar table and a Georgian choir gallery; Efenechtyd, two miles southwest of Ruthin, a tiny church with an unusual carved-oak font and a fourteenth-century East window; Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, two miles south of Ruthin, with fine medieval glass and part of a rood screen; Llanelidan, five miles south of Ruthin, with a Jacobean pulpit and box pews, and fine memorials; and Llanynys, three miles north of Ruthin, with a Tudor porch and Tudor panels from the house of Colonel William Salesbury, an altar dating from 1637, and a great fifteenth-century wall painting of St Christopher facing the door.

They seem to like grand monuments in Denbigh – the most obvious is the Dr Evan Pierce Memorial Garden, really just a setting for the 72-ft-high column that Pierce (1808-95) set up on Vale St in 1872 so he could see a statue of himself from his front door. In 1832, the year he qualified as a doctor, he helped bring a cholera outbreak in Denbigh under control, then went on to become a JP, alderman and mayor (1866-70).  Not satisfied with the column, in 1890 he built a memorial hall on Station Rd, now the town’s theatre. Fantastic as he was, there’s no space for him in the Rough Guide, alas.

I’d also like to explore the whole western part of Denbighshire and say at least something about it in the Rough Guide – it’s a remote and empty area, the precursor to the mountains of Snowdonia, and there are some interesting trails around the artificial lake of Llyn Brenig. This area was a sacred space to the people of the Bronze Age and there are cairn fields and burial mounds dotted (but not randomly) around the landscape. There’s a visitor centre and café (open daily) by the dam on the B4501 road.

Denbigh also has a small museum, open only on Mondays and Thursdays from 1.30 to 4pm (or by appointment on 01745 814323 or, but it has plenty of keen volunteers and if it gets its Lottery Heritage Foundation grant it will be able to create modern displays and open normal hours – the best of luck to them!

Corwen, to the west of Llangollen, has recently opened a museum (daily except Tues and Thurs 10.30am-3.30pm; donations welcomed) and it’s quite impressive (I will try to squeeze it in to the new Rough Guide). There’s good coverage of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt (which started here), farming and droving (moving herds of livestock to the English markets) and transport – the town more or less came into being when Thomas Telford built what is now the A5, a new highway to carry the Irish mails to Holyhead. Soon afterwards, the railways arrived and Corwen became the busiest junction in North Wales. The railway closed a century later in 1965 (although it was effectively abandoned after flooding at the end of 1964) and Corwen fell asleep; now it is being revitalised by the recent extension of the Llangollen Railway (a mostly steam-hauled heritage railway), along the Dee from Llangollen, to the east.

Southern Laos – Dong Daeng, Wat Phou and Pakse

We admit it, we barely scratched the surface of Southern Laos, really stopping only to visit the Wat Phou temple, but it would be great to spend time here exploring the less developed areas. There’s certainly plenty of little-known wildlife in the Annamite Mountains, along the border with Vietnam.

Dong Daeng island

La Folie Lodge retreat was the most expensive place we stayed on our entire Asian trip (and I was um-ing and ah-ing about booking) but it was worth every penny (and kip) and I managed to get a great deal by checking regularly until the price suddenly dropped to only £140 for two nights, including breakfast, free use of bicycles and boat transfers from the mainland. It was idyllic and even Tim enjoyed a bit of luxury and I managed to get him into the pool for an evening swim while other guests were enjoying G&Ts at the bar!


Yes, we had a delightful room in a little cottage at La Folie Lodge, and food, drink and service were all excellent – we were very glad to meet the owners, who were visiting from France. We also made good use of the free bikes – there are marked trails around the island, and then we took them on the ferry to the west bank of the Mekong and rode the 10 kilometres to Wat Phou, the only major Khmer temple complex in Laos. From La Folie there’s a clear view of what to me was obviously a breast-shaped mountain across the river to the west – but to Hindus it’s clearly a Shiva-lingam, ie phallic symbol. I can’t see it myself, but it definitely needed to have a temple built on the slope below it. What is now known simply as the Ancient City, down by the Mekong river, was first recorded in the second half of the 5th century, and by the end of the 6th century it was the capital of the Khmer king Mahendravarman – it covered an area of almost 2km by 2km, but there’s nothing to be seen now beyond a few mounds and ponds and the remains of two earth walls marked by roadside signs outside the present-day village of Nong Vian. The Angkorian complex, a couple of kilometres inland, was begun in roughly the 8th century, and the temples we see today were built in the early 11th century, with some additions in the 12th and 13th centuries. A lot of it is in a pretty poor condition, particularly the steep staircases that you’ll need to use to reach the most important parts.
The site’s museum is pretty good, with a display in Lao and English on the World Heritage List sites across the region and a fine collection of sandstone sculptures, in excellent condition. It costs 50,000 kip for foreigners to visit the site (open 8am-6pm) and the museum (open 8am-4.30pm).

 Champasak, the main village in the area (on the Mekong right opposite La Folie Lodge) has some nice cafés and guesthouses in attractive buildings built during the French colonial period; the other villages are good for local colour, with lurid modern temples, and they have a few rest-stops for sweaty cyclists. The villages are all being bypassed by a new road, linked to the modern toll-bridge across the Mekong from Pakse.

Pakse is the region’s transport hub, with a surprising number of foreigners in transit between say the Bolaven plateau and Wat Phou or the Cambodian border, and the airport is small but efficient and very close to the town centre. However there’s nothing much to actually see. The Champasak Historical Museum (closed Mondays) is 2km east of the centre, and seems rather run down; in fact the most interesting sight in town (best seen from a boat, I think) is the full-size new French château by the new bridge over the Mekong, built by the Dao Coffee tycoon, or so we were told.

We stayed at the well modernised Résidence Sisouk, where the Café Sinouk (yes, the spellings are correct) on the ground floor is a pleasantly upmarket haven – the Parisien Café across the road is part of a chain, with branches in the main Laotian towns, and not so nice. You could also visit the Sinouk Coffee Resort, 80km away in the Bolaven, the products of which are sold at the café here.

Northeast Wales – Wrexham and around

Hull. Wrexham. I go to the most glamorous and exotic parts of Britain. On the surface, Wrexham is a  rather run-down post-industrial town where far too many people smoke, women have the longest false eyelashes I’ve ever seen, boy racers cruise in souped-up Ford Escorts, and there’s no visible recycling. No surprise then that Britain’s newest super-prison opened there (on the Industrial Estate!) in March 2017.

But, just like Hull (Britain’s City of Culture 2017), it turns out to have hidden depths. Wrexham County Borough (which covers a surprisingly wide area) also has a remarkably frequent and affordable bus system and a reasonably useful cycle network, including some routes on former railway lines out into the surrounding villages. In fact many of these so-called villages seem more like self-contained towns, built around coal mines or steelworks that have now vanished – there’s a lot of industrial heritage here, and strong local pride in it. Some is described in the Rough Guide to Wales (which I’m updating part of) but not all, for instance King’s Mill, at the eastern end of the Clywedog Valley Trail.

It’s virtually impossible to add anything new to the Rough Guide due to space constraints, but I had to take a look at Wrexham Cemetery (on the Ruabon Road), because a friend helped arrange a Lottery Heritage Fund grant to start restoring it – it’s a fine example of a Victorian garden cemetery, with lawns and trees rather than serried ranks of tombstones. The chapel, designed by a former mayor of Wrexham, William Turner, and the cemetery gates are listed as Grade II.

My friends actually live in England, in Farndon, just across the Dee from the village of Holt which, partly because it’s right on the edge of Wales, tends not to feature in guidebooks. However its castle, built between 1283 and 1311 on an unusual pentagonal plan, was once very important. Guarding a bridge built c.1340 and still in use, the castle was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1647, after an eleven-month siege, and largely demolished. Much of its stone was in fact taken in the 1670s to build Eaton Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Westminster, just to the north. Just recently excavations have taken place and new information signs have been erected – it’s a lovely riverside site, but there’s not a great deal to see beyond a few grassy mounds. There’s even less to see of the Roman tile works of Bovium, just north of Holt, which was busiest between AD 87 and 135 when it supplied roofing tiles by barge to the legionary fort under construction at Deva (now Chester).

Between the castle and the bridge, St Chad’s church is very fine and usually open to visitors. Rebuilt after 1287 and again around 1500, its nave arcades are in Decorated style with the rest in Perpendicular style. It’s pockmarked both inside and outside the main door by holes left by the musket-balls of the Royalist forces cornered in the church and the Roundheads who were besieging them. There’s a fine late 15th-century font bearing the arms of Richard III, donated by Sir William Stanley, who betrayed Richard by switching sides at the battle of Bosworth, and was then executed after backing a plot against Henry VII in 1495. (The castle then reverted to the crown, and the detailed inventory of its content provides invaluable historical information.)

There’s also a deli in the centre of Holt that was once a florist’s shop run by Paul Burrell, formerly butler to Diana, Princess of Wales – he’s now across the bridge in Farndon, and apparently it’s a pretty good flower shop if you like that kind of thing. HG Wells taught at Holt Academy until he had an accident playing football that persuaded him that writing novels was a safer option.

In Wrexham, the main conventional sight is St Giles’ church, with cast iron gates and screen (1719) in front by the Davies brothers of Bersham (they also created gate-screens for Ruthin church and Chirk Castle). Another friend (from Gresford, four miles north) always reminds me of the little jingle about ‘The Seven Wonders of Wales’, which is really a set of minor sights in northern Wales – ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, St Winefride Wells, Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells’. Well ok, Snowdon is not a minor sight, but Wrexham steeple, 135 feet high, is just a local landmark, and it is a tower, not a steeple (ie there’s no pointy bit on top). Begun in 1506, it’s richly decorated with fine medieval carvings. Gresford’s light and airy church, mostly rebuilt in the late 15th century, boasts a peal of eight bells (two added in 1623), as well as a Perpendicular font, stained glass from c1500, and some fine monuments.

Another nine miles north from Gresford (actually just west of Chester), Hawarden is famous mainly as the home of William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s less-favourite prime minister. However far more dramatic and significant events occurred here on Palm Sunday eve of 1282 when Dafydd ap Gruffudd seized Hawarden’s Norman castle and captured its lord in his bed – Dafydd was an ally of the English against his brother Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales (having betrayed him three times), and had been made Lord of Denbigh, Ruthin and Hope (the ruins of the castle he built at Hope or Caergwrle can be reached by a path from Caergwrle, on the Wrexham-Bidston railway). However his revolt in 1282 provoked Edward I’s decisive campaign to conquer Wales, and Dafydd was captured in 1283 and disembowelled and quartered in Shrewsbury. The castle ruins are in the park of Gladstone’s former home and can be visited on foot via an archway in the centre of the village. Hawarden church was burnt down in 1857 and rebuilt by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott; there’s an Arts & Crafts memorial to Gladstone in a later chapel by Sir William Richmond, and a nativity window by Burne-Jones.

Northeast Wales is one of the rare corners of the country that’s more interested in soccer than in rugby – Michael Owen and Gary Speed both grew up in Hawarden. However for me the most interesting find here (although there’s no space for it in the Rough Guide) was Gladstone’s Library, a small mansion that was bequeathed by Gladstone to the village of Hawarden and is now Britain’s only residential library, and the only British equivalent to the Presidential Libraries found in the United States. There’s perfectly decent accommodation and food here, where you’ll meet scholars of nineteenth-century literature and history, as well as some religious types interested in Gladstone’s brand of Evangelical Anglicanism; they run an interesting range of talks and courses, including Gladfest (‘Britain’s friendliest literary festival’), and it’s also the venue for singer Cerys Matthews’s Good Life Experience in September – not your usual music festival, but an opportunity to connect and to relish the good simple things in life.

Hectic times in Hanoi


Hanoi’s old quarter is fun, but don’t stay there unless you are totally up for walking in the road at all times, dodging the buzzing scooters, ciclos and taxis, because the footways of most roads have been totally taken over as parking for those same scooters, as well as shop displays and impromptu cafés. On some streets there really is nowhere to walk but in the roadway – but then most local people, if they’re going more than a couple of hundred metres, don’t walk, they jump on their scooter.

On the other hand, since September 2016 the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake have been closed to traffic at weekends (from 7pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday), with large numbers of pedestrians eager to reclaim the space (there’s free wifi too). On the Saturday morning a group called MyHanoi encourages children (of all ages) to play traditional games (including skipping and tug-of-war as well as specifically Vietnamese ones), and on the Saturday night when we were there the London Symphony Orchestra played the first ever concert by a British orchestra in Vietnam, relayed on three big screens. Of course most Saturday nights are less significant, but there are buskers of all kinds, including Vietnamese theatre and comedy, and the beer stalls lay out ranks of low plastic stools right across ‘bia hoi corner’ (the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien and Dinh Liet).

Oddly, only the tourists drink bia hoi, a light beer that has to be drunk more or less the day it’s made as it isn’t pasteurised, while the locals choose pricier bottled beers. Perhaps that’s something to do with the skinny girls in uniform promoting Tiger and Tuborg beers. Bia hoi is a Czech-style pilsner (many Vietnamese worked in Czechoslovakia and East Germany when they were still communist – in fact an estimated 60,000 first- and second-generation Vietnamese still live in the Czech Republic, and Nguyen, the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith or Jones, is the ninth most common surname there). Until recently there was a midnight curfew in Hanoi, but in the bar district (and tourist hotels) this has been relaxed to 2am at weekends. The Vietnamese tend not to stay up late, and personally I don’t see why tourism should force them to change their habits.

Down in Ho Chi Minh City we didn’t notice the bia hoi sellers, but the Hoa Vien Bräuhaus (at 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1) is run by Ngo Hong Chuyen who lived in Czechoslovakia from 1983 to 1990 and developed such a love of Pilsner Urquell and other fine Bohemian lagers that he just had to open a microbrewery when he returned home. This lively welcoming brewpub now doubles as the Czech consulate!

The History Museum (8am-noon, 1.30-5pm, closed the first Monday of the month; D40,000) has some excellent displays (although I didn’t learn much beyond what’s in the Contexts section of the Rough Guide), including some lovely sandstone Champa sculptures dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries. It’s now absorbed the Museum of the Revolution, across the road, which is more tedious, although a section has been added on doi moi (the economic liberalisation which began in 1986 – China began the same process in 1978, but doi moi is always presented as a purely Vietnamese breakthrough). There’s also an interesting history display just off the reception lobby of the Metropole Hotel, the city’s classiest and most historic place to stay (now owned by Sofitel), which also puts on a daily tour for guests.

The beautiful Temple of Literature stays open slightly later than it used to (April-Sept 7.30am-6pm, Oct-March 8am-6pm (to 9pm on Saturdays), but now costs D30,000, not D5000 as in our 2009 Rough Guide. Regardless of cost this is the place for students graduating from school or university to be photographed, making for striking photo opportunities for tourists too.

Some practicalities

We had an excellent dinner at Koto, immediately east of the Temple of Literature at 59 Van Mieu, a training restaurant run by a children’s charity (KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One;, which has a reasonable vegetarian choice (I loved the braised tofu and aubergine), and they also do roll-your-own wraps. They’ve also opened Koto Kuruhu at 39 Le Duan in Ho Chi Minh City. I was also happy to find a new salad bar (not actually officially open when we were there) called Delisa at 8A Lý Đạo Thành, serving lovely fresh ingredients in an attractive little space, although my portion wasn’t huge for the price.

However vegetarians should really head for Chau Long, on the east side of Truc Bach lake, where Aummee at no.26 is a classy vegetarian restaurant; it has a very detailed menu which gives the English and Vietnamese names for ingredients. Just south at no.44 are the Hanoi Cooking Centre, offering meals, classes and food tours (not specifically vegetarian), and The Bookworm, a book shop and exchange with plenty of English titles (9am-7pm daily).

The traffic in Hanoi seems chaotic but somehow it flows! And it will flow around pedestrians too, as long as you keep moving steadily; just be aware that scooters turn right on red lights and don’t yield priority. There are some dodgy pirate taxis here – stick to Hanoi Taxis Group (0438 535353) and MaiLinh (0438 333333).

Parting thoughts

I became very aware that, behind the free-market chaos, Vietnam is still a Communist state – firstly the incompetence of the Visa on Arrival system (see my first Vietnam post), but also the presence of LOTS of police and also all the whistle-blowers by the beach in Danang who prevent cyclists from stopping anywhere except the supervised scooter parks. And I mean just stopping to take in the view, not only parking – most annoying. The toilets on our Danang-Hanoi train has been replaced with high-tech new ones that were oversized so that one had to clamber over them to get in and close the door – typical of the nonsense produced by communist central planning, where obeying orders and fulfilling the quota overrides common sense and the public interest – I was very familiar with this in Eastern Europe. Finally, the BBC News websites ( and .com) were blocked in Vietnam – except, interestingly, airside at Hanoi airport where it came up without a hiccup – presumably they don’t want transit passengers to notice the censorship. Speaking of airports, our quarantine form was never looked at going in or out, and leaving from Hanoi the passport checks were very slow, as a database seemed to freeze. By and large, however, things seem to be going in the right direction. We were flying to Hong Kong, which seems to be going the other way politically, with the Mainland Chinese government trying to limit free speech and opposition.

In Hanoi in particular I felt there were too many tourists (and they all seemed about two inches taller than me, to make it worse), and of course there’s the usual ratio of ugly white guys with local girlfriends. Hanoi really should just be a transit town between the highlands, Halong Bay, and other parts of the country, but a lot of people seem to spend time there enjoying the cheap beer and cigarettes.

I’m very aware that we passed through Vietnam too quickly and didn’t get outside the main cities (apart from what we saw from the trains) – the real Vietnam is still waiting for me somewhere. I could see that Vietnamese culture is as strong as Chinese culture, and very distinct from it and other local cultures. Certainly it’s very different from Laos and Cambodia – in particular they follow a totally different form of Buddhism, so it’s not so important to avoid PDAs (public displays of affection) and displaying bare flesh. I expected to speak more French, but that now seems to have vanished.

Danang, Hoi An and Hué

Danang, Hoi An and Hue are conveniently close together in the centre of Vietnam, although Hué is just too far from the others for an easy day trip (despite new road tunnels). Danang (or Da Nang) is the country’s third largest city, with a population of about a million, but it is far less crowded and hectic than Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; it also has long sandy beaches, one reason why it’s becoming a tourist resort and is drawing considerable numbers of expats to live here. The new developments are on a peninsula across the Han river to the east of the city – during the Vietnam War, when Danang’s airport was the Americans’ main logistical base in the country, this was where the GIs lived, mainly in tents, as the area could only be reached be ferry and thus could easily be secured from attack. Now there’s a row of bridges in different funky styles (the Dragon Bridge, by the Cham Museum, lights up and spouts water from 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and a tunnel is to be built to speed tourists directly from the airport to the beach area. In fact new luxury resorts and hotels are sprouting all along the beach from Danang south to Hoi An, although I’m puzzled who the clients will be, as the major new market is the Chinese, who aren’t interested in beaches.

Our main discovery in Danang (apart from great food – see below) was the new Fine Arts Museum, opened in December 2016 at 78 Le Duan. It’s really quite impressive, its spacious new building housing over 400 works of art, with useful information panels. There’s a good range of paintings by artists from central Vietnam (including some in lacquer) as well as sculpture, ceramics, folk and applied art and ethnic costumes; there’s also a decent café. They haven’t yet put up a website, although they promised to do so soon, so I don’t know what the opening hours are, but it did seem to be free.

Around the back is the swastika-topped temple of the home-grown Cao Dai religion, which is distinctly odd – there’s a giant eyeball inside. The Cham Museum is well established and busy, and displays nothing but the stunning sculptures of the Champa civilisation, which was a precursor of the Khmer Empire that built the Angkor temples (see this post).


Hoi An, about 30km (or 45 minutes) south of Danang (yellow buses run hourly along Le Duan, just south of Danang station and through the centre; or take a taxi), is rightly famed for its blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European influences and architectural styles, and is well worth a day’s visit. It is in fact something of a tourist trap, and very crowded at peak times, but once you get away from the main shopping streets you should be fine. There are beaches, and luxury hotels, just to the east of town, and you’ll see lots of tourists wobbling along on bikes provided by the hotels.

The centre (a World Heritage Site since 1999) is traffic-free and there’s a fee of D120,000 to visit, which gives access to any five of the tourist sights on one day (previously you could visit one museum, one assembly hall, one merchant’s house etc, but now you can see five assembly halls and nothing else if you choose – though that would be silly, even given their riotous over-the-top decoration). If you’re just going shopping, you can probably decline to pay. Guide books have full details of the sights, of course – the assembly halls were community centres for Chinese settlers from various places of origin, and the Hai Nan Assembly Hall (10 Tran Phu) has fairly recently been added to the ticket scheme. Supposedly there’s free wifi in the pedestrian area too.

Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, although the French took effective control in 1885. It remains a quiet and cultured place, largely unaffected by the economic boom that’s sweeping aside the historic buildings and the peace and quiet of Ho Chi Minh Ciry and Hanoi. We were not using the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Vietnam, so some of these updates may have a bit of a dated feel…

The Fine Arts Museum is now more accurately named the Museum of Royal Antiquities, although an annexe to the main palace (built in 1845 inside the Imperial City then moved here to become a university library) also houses a good informative display of Champa sculpture from the surrounding region. It’s covered by the same ticket as the Imperial City (D150,000) and is now open from 7am to 5pm daily. However, in December 2016, plans were released to make Le Loi Street, along the south bank of the Perfume River, the city’s main cultural axis, with up to six museums in the long term. There are already two there, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Le Ba Dang Art Centre, and two city buildings are to become sculpture and embroidery museums. Then the provincial government will move out and the building will become a new Museum of Fine Arts.

The Imperial City still feels a bit empty and windswept in places, but far more has been restored and re-opened than we expected – it was largely burnt down in 1947, and was again heavily damaged when the Viet Cong captured the city in 1968 and held it for 25 days, and it then took ten days of heavy fighting for the South Vietnamese government forces to recapture it. Since then the rebuilding process has been slow and painstaking.

Some practicalities

In Danang there’s now a tourist information centre at 108 Bach Dang (by the river at the east end of Hung Vuong; tel: 0236 3898196), which isn’t shown in our ancient edition of the Rough Guide; you can rent bikes here. There are some good restaurants in the An Thuong expat area east of the river (inland from the Holiday Beach Hotel), notably a Mexican joint (really!) called Taco Ngon and a more upmarket place called Lam Vien. We enjoyed meeting Shaun of Danang Food Tour, who will gladly take you on a crawl around cafés and restaurants that gives both physical and mental sustenance and is just a lot of fun too. In the city centre, Bach Dang, between the Dragon Bridge and the Han Bridge, is lively at night, with some attractive riverside cafés.

In Hoi An, we loved Bazar, at 36 Tran Phu
 St – it’s owned by a friend of a friend, a fascinating Italian archeologist who works across the region but especially on the Cham ruins of My Son, and his wife Thanh. The front of the restaurant is relatively recent, but the rear was probably built in the 17th century, while pottery shards found in the back garden have been dated to the 14th century, when Fujianese settlers first came from China. They serve fine traditional Hoi An food and a few European dishes too for those who need a change. There are lots of other good places to eat (it seems to be a local rule that all the waitresses have to wear pointy straw hats, for some reason) – one that’s been recommended is Morning Glory, which does great local food (including soups, noodles, steamed shrimp dumplings and desserts) as well as Vietnamese-style baguettes – like many Vietnamese restaurants, they also offer cookery classes.

Hué does feel as if it’s divided in two by the Huong River (aka the Perfume River), with just a few long bridges across it – the citadel and palace are to the north, and most hotels, cafés and restaurants are to the south. Some perfectly nice hotels are located down some very rough alleys, but don’t worry! This is a lively area, and there are lots of ciclos and taxis (although there seem to be lots of scooters without lights here too). You may need taxis more often than expected as things are quite far apart and map scales can be deceptive, but they only cost a few dollars.

The city is known for its excellent vegetarian food, due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks here, but apparently they avoid garlic and onion due to their warming effects. We had a great lunch at Lien Hoa, at a temple at 3 Le Quy Don, south of the stadium; dishes (costing D20,000-50,000 each) included bamboo flowers, jackfruit, mushrooms, aubergine and bitter melon, as well as soya, of course. Very filling, very affordable.

PS (July 2017) Quite a few of the tall hotel blocks near the beach in Danang have rooftop bars, and our friends there have been researching the best. The Top View Bar at the Vanda Hotel is one of their favourites, right at the foot of the Dragon Bridge with views over the city. They also love the deck at the Top Bar at A La Carte Hotel, which is great at sunset, and the Tourane Bar on the 26th floor of the Muang Thanh Grand Hotel, which has spectacular views of the Han River, Da Nang Bay and the ocean; because it’s a bit off the beaten track, the prices are less than half those of the other bars.