Our visit to Tam Coc was a fleeting one, and the only thing that merits mention is the boat trip we took down the river where part of King Kong was filmed. We climbed the famous rock to see the admittedly breathtaking view of the soaring green-carpeted rocks that are becoming a familiar sight in Vietnam, and were paddled back to shore by a smiley local who could steer the boat using only his toes.
A few hours in one of the country's luxurious night buses later, we were in Phong Nha, a town flanked by an atmospheric national park and a cave system that includes the largest cave in the world (you could purportedly fit an entire New York City block inside it). We spent longer there than planned, staying in a lively hostel called Easy Tiger and exploring the Paradise and Dark Caves.
The main event in Phong Nha, however, is the aptly-named Pub With Cold Beer, which can be found at the end of a long dirt road. This place has garnered local acclaim for promoting sustainable eating and offering the ultimate farm-to-table experience: you choose a live chicken and have the option to kill it yourself before waiting an hour or two for them to pluck and cook it for you. Then it is served with rice, morning glory and the best peanut sauce ever as you look out on the river below, (cold) beer in hand. I went with Abbie and our new friend Gavin, and the latter did the killing. Sure, it was pretty gross – the uncontrollable quivering just after the chop, the detached head on the ground, the body mysteriously thrashing around for a good three minutes afterwards – but it was the most ethical and satisfying meat I've ever eaten, and I think that if you can't watch a chicken die you shouldn't be allowed to eat meat. I felt kind of strange as I munched on what I had seen pottering around the garden just an hour beforehand, but hey: at least I knew where my food was coming from.
So it was with a new perspective on ethical meat-eating that we took another bus to Hue, the graceful capital of the Nguyen emperors (1802-1945). The rich history of the city can best be explored in the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure (though a lot of the buildings were unfortunately destroyed in the American War). Inside its fortified walls are temples with dainty golden roofs, old assembly halls and palaces of grand lacquered columns and ornate thrones, and well-manicured gardens that are great for pretending you're ruling the empire, etc.
A less grand but certainly fascinating stop was Hue's abandoned water park, which was built several years ago but has stood untouched for at least a decade. Its setting on a peaceful lake surrounded by woodlands is gorgeous and would have made for an excellent water park, but the atmosphere now is decidedly eerie: the slides are dry, the water is stagnant and murky, and the only sound besides the crickets in the overgrown grass is broken glass crunching underfoot. It could be the setting for either an awesome secret rave or a horror movie. Definitely worth a visit.
Next stop: Hoi An.